It’s no coincidence that the EU had already prepared a statement on Monday that ruled out any Brexit renegotiation, even before the ‘Brady amendment’, which requested the replacement of the backstop within the withdrawal agreement had been voted on. One of the reasons why, is that a certain Martin Selmayr is now very much sitting in the EU’s driving seat.
A lot of media attention in the UK is often spent on whatever the EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his team are saying, but I am hearing in Brussels that when Theresa May’s top Brexit advisor Olly Robbins visits EU institutions, he now meets Martin Selmayr, the controversial Secretary-General of the European Commission.
Some member states are apparently uncomfortable about his growing influence, and they should be, because Selmayr has a reputation for behaving like a bull in a China shop. With the risk of no deal looming, one can only wonder why Ireland, the Benelux, Germany and France – who are risking a lot of damage, for which they are insufficiently prepared – tolerate a hardliner in charge who’s making this prospect more likely.
Until recently, Selmayr served as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff. His recent appointment to the top levels of the European Commission, bypassing seasoned eurocrats, ‘could be viewed as a coup-like action’, according to the European Parliament, and did ‘not follow EU law or the Commission’s own rules’ according to the European Ombudsman. The European Parliament has stopped short of questioning the appointment, perhaps fearing the troublesome ways its own top officials are appointed would be reassessed. More importantly, however, Jean-Claude Juncker had linked his own fate with that of Selmayr and quite aggressively forced his EU Commissioners to toe the line. Selmayr’s appointment raises serious questions as to how Jean-Claude Juncker’s rumoured condition may have opened the door for people like Selmayr to occupy positions of power that should never be reserved for mandarins like him.
When it comes to Brexit, Martin Selmayr has been regularly accused of complicating the negotiations unnecessarily. British officials have accused him of wanting to ‘punish’ the UK for leaving the EU, which he apparently considers to be a ‘tragedy’ that will, however, re-energise the European project as a case study in the essential value of the Union.
In other words: he buys into the narrative that Brexit will push anti-establishment populists in mainland Europe away from exiting themselves, despite the fact that populists in Italy, France – where about half of the French electorate voted for a Eurosceptic candidate in 2017 – and Germany have actually been gaining ground since the Brexit vote.
Selmayr’s idea of ‘re-energising’ the European project seems to include preventing the UK from getting an easy ride out of the club. He has been accused of leaking details of a confidential Downing Street dinner to derail the Brexit negotiations. It’s hard to know if this is accurate, but it’s a fact that there are no similar rumours about the EU’s official Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who’s widely respected for having conducted the Brexit negotiations in a responsible manner.
EU Member states should really wonder whether Selmayr can be trusted to guide such a crucial issue as Brexit, given his history, which is anything but conciliatory. For example, he obstructed attempts to move non-eurozone member states more closely to the EU’s core, suggesting they should either accept more EU federalism or miss out on cooperation. He also pushed hard for a mandatory quota for EU countries to welcome asylum seekers, something which ended up increasing Euroscepticism in Central and Eastern Europe, hurting decades of efforts to bring them back into the West. In practice it also failed to relocate people within the passport-free Schengen area, but the Commission couldn’t resist using a crisis to try to expand EU powers.
In 2014, Selmayr helped to secure Juncker’s appointment, against all odds by pressuring German politicians like Angela Merkel to accept that the candidate that was nominated by the European Parliament’s biggest group – Juncker – had to be chosen by EU leaders as Commission President, even if he wasn’t even on the ballot in his native Luxembourg. This forced Merkel to break her promise to David Cameron not to appoint the ‘EU federalist’ Juncker, which contributed to the Brexit vote in 2016.
Selmayr was also one of the driving forces behind Juncker’s pledge in 2014 to turn the European Commission during his term into a ‘political Commission’. With Brexit and a severe breakdown of relations with Central and Eastern Europe, it should be clear to everyone now that this was simply a bad idea.
Before that, Selmayr had worked in the cabinet of the ultra-EU-federalist Commissioner from Luxembourg, Viviane Reding, where he broke with EU single market orthodoxy to push through price regulation of mobile roaming fees, using it as a populist trick to promote the EU, even if it drove up prices for consumers that do not travel as much.
Fundamentally, regardless of his ideas, it’s just not a good idea for a non-elected EU bureaucrat to play such an important political role.
It’s obvious Selmayr is a would-be politician with very outspoken EU-federalist ideas, and opposes flexibility in the Brexit talks, which endangers the good ties almost all European politicians want to keep with the UK after Brexit. The Conservative MP Greg Hands has provided an insight into how Selmayr seems to see the Brexit negotiations as a ‘zero-sum game’, with winners and losers. In reality however, any restriction of trade access will of course hit both trading partners. Imagine if Angela Merkel were to claim that a few tens of thousand job losses in Germany were actually not all that bad, given the fact there is greater damage in Britain. Still, the idea that just because the damage of a no deal would be greater in Britain, the EU is holding all the cards, holds sway within the EU institutions.
After all the controversy surrounding his appointment, which was unseen for any bureaucratic top job, you’d expect Selmayr to take a more cautious approach, but he didn’t do that. On the contrary, the latest rumour is that he would now like to be the first EU ambassador to the UK. Perhaps it’s an old fashioned thought, but diplomats should be diplomatic. It would be very irresponsible for the EU to appoint such a divisive figure to shape the future relationship between the EU and the UK, which will be the EU’s biggest trading partner after Brexit. If Selmayr really likes politics so much, maybe he should simply stand for office.
Reportedly, while the EU’s institutions have offered an uncompromising position in public about renegotiating the withdrawal treaty, diplomats from some EU member states have already been discussing time limits on the ‘backstop’ as well as exit mechanisms. At a time when the UK is openly requesting renegotiation of the Brexit deal, the consequences of the European Commission inflicting a dose of inflexibility into the Brexit process could have huge consequences. If people like Selmayr believe that a no-deal Brexit and the chaos it would bring would benefit the EU project, then are badly mistaken. The European Commission tends to be blamed for all kinds of things it is innocent for. It can be sure to be blamed when it is guilty.
Pieter Cleppe represents the independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels