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EU Puppet-Master Walks Away, Leaving Behind Enemies and Intrigue

Ian Wishart

(Bloomberg) -- On an early spring evening in the French city of Strasbourg, behind the familiar faces of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, walked the man the Germans call the puppet-master.

Although it had been publicly denied, Martin Selmayr, the commission’s top civil servant, had a couple of months earlier taken personal control of the European Union side of the Brexit talks. The deal with the U.K. looked in tatters and Selmayr was doing what he did best during more than 15 years in Brussels: pulling strings, treading on toes and banging heads together.

It wasn’t enough this time. May left the last-minute talks that March evening this year with a package of concessions that showed more flexibility from the bloc than many thought possible, but the House of Commons still voted the deal down. A few days later, from the German’s austere office on the 13th floor of the commission’s headquarters, Selmayr rang the U.K.’s Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins. The trouble with May, Selmayr lamented, is that she believed leaving the EU was going to be easy.

This month, the puppet-master is leaving. While the exact reasons for the sudden exit of the most powerful man in Brussels are, typically, shrouded in mystery, he appears to have fallen victim to the 28-country political infighting that propelled his compatriot Ursula von der Leyen to succeed Juncker as president. This article is based on conversations with more than a dozen people who’ve had contact with Selmayr, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous.

While few people outside Brussels have ever heard of him, just about everyone connected with the EU’s institutions has a story about Selmayr – even if many of them are apocryphal. And friend and foe agree his departure will leave a large hole in the EU machinery. His direct lines to Europe’s top leaders and brinkmanship meant he was able to forcefully push the commission position. Nothing happened in Brussels unless it got his approval, officials said. His fingerprints are all over some of the EU’s most populist measures, including the landmark law that forced mobile phone operators to charge the same wherever in Europe the person makes the call.

In the corridors and meeting-places around the bloc’s HQ, Selmayr’s described as a Machiavelli and a man of contradictions. He’s feared, loathed and admired in equal measure. He’s been known to reduce men and women, including senior officials, to tears, yet engenders fierce loyalty from those he trusts. He exudes self-control and discretion, yet drinks with colleagues in the same bars as journalists, occasionally even sharing gossip with them.

To those who think the EU is a bad thing, Selmayr – a faceless, never-elected official committed to ever increasing EU centralization and the beneficiary of a meteoric rise up the labyrinthine Brussels bureaucracy – was the personification of all that’s rotten. “I want Martin Selmayr to become the most famous person in the whole of Europe,” the U.K.’s Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage told Politico last year. “I want every voter across all the member states to understand how this place operates.”

Read more: What ‘No-Deal Brexit’ Means and Why It’s a Risk Again

“Martin,” as he’s referred to by thousands of EU officials and diplomats, moved from being one of two dozen commission spokespeople to President Juncker’s chief of staff in less than 10 years. Few had any doubts it was he who was running things day-to-day.

In 2018, Selmayr controversially became the commission’s secretary-general, a powerful position usually reserved for people who’ve worked their way up the civil service. In what some called the worst example of his skulduggery, the retirement of his predecessor – and therefore the fact there’d be a vacancy – was kept secret until the meeting in which he was appointed. Selmayr was made deputy secretary general first, to enable him to be of sufficient rank, and promoted to the top job less than five minutes later.

Occasionally Irritating

The European ombudsman said the process “did not follow EU law, in letter or spirit, and did not follow the commission’s own rules.” Selmayr rejected the finding and despite plenty of criticism, there was little anyone could do.

He occasionally irritated national leaders by pushing his own agenda in the face of their opposition. In 2016, he and Juncker chose Michel Barnier to be the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator despite the fact – or more likely because – neither Germany or France wanted him.

Selmayr’s closer involvement at the end of the last phase of the negotiations over the U.K.’s departure came as little surprise. His personal views on Brexit were irrelevant. When there’s a deal to be done, Martin wants to put his name on it, said one official. Some national governments weren’t happy with the amount of flexibility the commission offered and how they were kept out of the picture.

It was a similar story in 2015, when Selmayr opened up back channels between Brussels and Athens to try to help broker a deal to keep indebted Greece in the euro area. Those efforts often clashed with the plans of Greece’s creditor governments who ultimately called the shots.

Officials speak openly about Selmayr’s manipulation of the media. After attending a dinner with May at Downing Street in October 2017, reports emerged in the German press, with whom Selmayr has strong links, that the British premier had “begged for help.” The U.K. rejected the account and fingers pointed at Selmayr, one of only a few people in the room. He responded by saying people were trying to “frame” him.

But he had form for that too. In 2015, with Europe rattled by the euro-area debt crisis, Selmayr leaked highly sensitive information to a German newspaper about an idea from the government in Berlin to allow Greece to leave the euro area, something the commission staunchly opposed.

Shaping Talks

If both instances revealed a desire to use the media to blow into the open secret negotiations and put the commission on the front foot, the strategy was a success. Both leaks shaped each set of talks, and the news agenda, for weeks.

Some said they won’t miss his micro-management and meddling. Spokespeople talk of being sent detailed emails about why they’d not done a good enough job. In 2014, as Juncker’s new group of commissioners faced hearings in the European Parliament, Selmayr changed the written testimony of the incoming trade commissioner apparently without her knowledge. And just after last Christmas, at the height of the controversy over his latest appointment, he made late-night alterations to his Wikipedia page, removing some of the more negative assertions about him.

Many EU officials are happy to see the back of him, echoing in private what World Bank chief executive Kristalina Georgieva said in public in 2016 when she resigned as a commissioner. Her relationship with Selmayr was “just poisonous,” she told Politico.

Selmayr hasn’t revealed his next move. Speculation that he might have one last trick up his sleeve and even manage to stick around by moving back to his old job as the commission president’s right-hand-man now look wide of the mark.

For someone who prefers to pull strings in the shadows, Selmayr was partial to the odd bit of trolling. Minutes after England were knocked out of the 2018 World Cup in a highly charged semi-final against EU-member Croatia, and with the Brexit negotiations still in full swing, he sent a tweet filled entirely of soccer ball emojis and EU flags.

It prompted a response from former leader of the anti-Brexit U.K. Liberal Democrats Tim Farron. “I’m pro-EU,” he said. “But sometimes you wazzocks make it hard to be.”

To contact the author of this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Caroline AlexanderRobert Jameson

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