The Brief – Kartenhaus von Selmayr

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

For those who like to describe the EU bubble as the European version of ‘House of Cards’, today we saw its season’s finale. Our very own Frank Underwood secured a post to prolong his power and influence beyond the expected expiry date.

Martin Selmayr, currently Jean-Claude Juncker’s all-powerful head of cabinet, will become the new secretary-general of the EU executive as of 1 March. He will take over from Alexander Italianer, who informed Juncker early this morning that he would retire.

Selmayr has been described as one of the smartest eurocrats and most hard-working officials, but also as a Machiavellian and highly ambitious character. As a veteran EU bureaucrat told this reporter in the past, “he is our Frank Underwood”.

For outsiders he is an amicable figure. A former spokesperson for Viviane Reding, he is the spin doctor par excellence of the EU institutions – or as he jokingly told reporters once “the master of truth”.

But stories abound in the Commission and elsewhere about his arm-twisting skills to impose his will in key directives over vice-presidents. Or his scrupulous control not only to access the president, but of every corner in the realm of the executive, as various senior sources told this reporter over the past years.

As no other candidate was considered for the post, Juncker looked back to make the case for his appointment. He recalled the case of current EU ambassador to US, David O’Sullivan, who changed his post as Romano Prodi’s chef de cabinet to steer the Commission’s engine room.

Asked about the Machiavellian dimension of his choice, Juncker replied that “I chose him because he has all the competences and skills needed” for the post. Clear enough?

Inside the Commission, the news was received with a loud “whaaaat?” Insiders were not surprised by the move (which they expected down the road) but the timing.

But as one official put it, it is no coincidence that this happens one week after Juncker exposed his ideas of merging the Commission and European Council presidencies, and on the eve of the EU summit to discuss the next and future European elections.

Many inside the Commission believes that Italianer’s predecessor Catherine Day left because she did not accept the power limitation that Selmayr imposed on the secretary general position. Now he would certainly refill the post with power… and expand it.

He could easily be inspired by compatriot Klaus Welle. He switched from a similar position with Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering’s to become the EP’s most powerful figure. As a long-serving Parliament official explained, he conquered power by offering extra office space and more assistants to the influential members of the EP bureau.

Welle has been the driving force to slowly augment the role of the Parliament in the EU sphere, while inside almost no page was turned without his consent.

After today’s move, Germany’s conquest of EU’s key posts significantly continued. German nationals not only pull the strings in the Commission and the Parliament, but they also chair key financial institutions: the European Stability Mechanism, the Single Resolution Board and the European Investment Bank.

And the top prize is also within reach. Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann is clearly leading the race to take over from current ECB boss Mario Draghi in November next year, as EPC’s Robin Huguenot-Noël notes.

Juncker said that he is “a bit fed up” of discussing national flags inside the institution he leads. Selmayr is not a German “undercover agent”, according to Günther Oettinger, but quite the opposite.

But Selmayr was instrumental in securing a few key points for his motherland. Despite the two energy Commissioners’ concerns about Nord Stream 2, the executive did not block the Russian pipeline and passed the ‘hot potato’ to the member states.

Juncker criticised the “simplistic” manner of reducing EU posts to nationalities. But it is obvious that the power quota at the EU’s helm is a top priority in member states. Especially now, as capitals are starting to jockey and exchange favours behind the scenes ahead of the big reshuffle.

For that reason, as Juncker himself rightly pointed out, the appointment of Clara Martinez as his new head of cabinet was a small victory for Spain. But the promotion of Martin’s deputy or Luis de Guindos’ victory in the ECB vice-president race is not enough for Madrid, because the fourth largest economy “deserves more power” after years of being absent from the top of the pile, said De Guindos.

For Spain, and most likely for Germany, the story will continue in the coming months. For Selmayr, today’s episode was a great season finale but it is hardly the end of the show. Stay tuned.

The Roundup

Ahead of elections in April, Hungary’s government has found the perfect enemy in George Soros and is using him to promote its “hate propaganda”, according to one MEP.

Newly designated vice-president of the ECB Luis de Guindos, described the European recovery as solid. But existing expansionary monetary policy should be for “extraordinary times” only.

Eleven EU countries have signaled their support for draft rules that would place export restrictions on companies selling surveillance technologies, a leaked working paper shows.

MEPs took a large step towards energy market reform with strict rules on coal power subsidies. Now the fight is on for the Parliament to convince member states of this ambitious position.

With the COP24 climate summit in Katowice approaching fast, Poland says it will focus on “common sense”. But preparations remain chairman-less after the former environment minister recently lost his job

Forest nations want the EU to control the supply chains of products that cause deforestation more strictly. Activists are planting hundreds of thousands of trees to counter Donald Trump’s pledge to leave the Paris Agreement.

Austria has long been a promised land for those who cannot do without smoking in bars and restaurants. After a ban planned for May was cancelled, campaigners are now swinging into action.

Commissioner boss Margrethe Vestager approves of more women in top jobs at the Berlaymont. A hint that we can expect a female Commission President soon?

Look out for…

European Industry Day is taking place in Brussels for the second year in a row, while the Covenant of Mayors celebrates its 10th anniversary. Follow our special report here.

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