Power grab Martin Selmayr, a hard-nosed German, cements his power in Brussels

The powerful, backroom figure in the European Commission will take over as head of its control center. He becomes the third German to secure a top job in Brussels – one too many, critics argue.
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Wanna fight? I'm ready.

Germany has a new direct line to the center of power in Brussels – Martin Selmayr.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday designated his 47-year-old chief-of-staff to take over as the top civil servant of the European Commission, a promotion that could cement his power in European Union politics for years to come. He will be the first German to hold the position, joining two other compatriots in senior Brussels positions. It’s a move, however, that has sparked concern among some EU policymakers who point to what they see as a growing concentration of power in German hands.

As secretary-general, Mr. Selmayr will oversee the commission’s expansive administrative machinery, coordinating more than 35,000 staff deployed in various policy departments. It’s a job the trained lawyer from Bonn has been groomed to take over. While working for former information society commissioner Viviane Reding, he learned how bureaucracies function and how to make them work to his advantage. During that time, he established a reputation as a fiercely ambitious, witty strategist who helped craft legislation on capping cellphone roaming fees and pushed for tougher privacy laws. Some view him as the consummate politician dressed as a civil servant.

The French newspaper Libération likened him to Frank Underwood.

But it was during Mr. Selmayr's current stint as Mr. Juncker's chief of staff that he emerged as one of the commission's most powerful administrators, known for bulldozing his way through any opposition. During this period, he showed no fear in confronting higher-ranking commissioners or picking fights with national government leaders. The power broker excelled at enforcing the top-down-management approach of his boss.

Mr. Juncker has affectionately called Mr. Selmayr a "monster" for his willingness to work long hours and execute. The media have come up with some less affectionate names. German magazine Der Spiegel called him the "monster of Berlaymont" for the chief of staff's rough leadership style at the commission's headquarters. The French newspaper Libération likened him to Frank Underwood, the sinister president in the "House of Cards" Netflix series.

Mr. Selmayr studied law at the University of Geneva, later earning a PhD at the University of Passau. He also took law courses at King's College London and the University of California, Berkeley (his father, Gerhard, was also a lawyer who served, among other government positions, as a member of former German chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger's chief-of-staff). He began his meteoric rise in Brussels as a legal advisor for Germany's Bertelsmann media company, before joining former commissioner Ms. Reding. She was so impressed with her German chief of staff that she later recommended him to Mr. Juncker, who was seeking a higher office.

Mr. Selmayr helped lead to the rush appointment of Michel Barnier (center) as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, in a discussion with Mr. Juncker.

Mr. Selmyr is credited as a key architect of Mr. Juncker's rise to the commission presidency. He served as campaign director for the former prime minster of Luxembourg when he sought and won the nomination of the European People's Party as its candidate. It now appears his mentor wants to honor that loyalty.

As if Mr. Juncker knew his critics in Brussels wouldn't be happy with the appointment, he joked sarcastically to journalists: "Martin Selmayr and I have something in common – we don't have just friends."

Apart from Mr. Selmayr's hard-nosed management style, critics question the decision to put another top job in the hands of Germany, already the prominent power in the EU as its richest member and biggest contributor. The head administrator and spokesman of the European Parliament is Klaus Welle, a German. Helga Schmid is in the same role at the diplomatic European External Action Service. At another level, Jens Weidmann, the current head of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, is seen as a likely successor to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, whose term ends in October 2019.

European Budget and Resources Commissioner Günther Oettinger, also a German, sought to dispel any concerns of increasing German influence in Brussels. "Martin Selmayr is not an agent of German politics," he told the media, noting that the senior civil servant hasn't always agreed with Berlin on policy.

Mr. Selmayr will replace the Dutchman, Alexander Italianer, when he retires on March 1 after two and a half years in the post.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Ruth Berschens, the Handelsblatt bureau chief in Brussels, contributed to this story. To contact the author: [email protected]