He has been called everything. A character from a novel, the Frank Underwood of the European Commission, a man who could sell his mom and dad, a monster that makes Brussels sway. Only exceptional people can evoke that much passion. If you have heard about Martin Selmayr, chances are that it is because of the major scandal he caused a few months ago. He allegedly appointed himself as Secretary General of the European Commission – i.e. to be the most powerful bureaucrat of the European Union.
Here, I would like to introduce to you another facet of this man. It may be hard for his detractors to admit, but whilst being the object of one of the most damaging scandals of the European Commission in recent years, Martin Selmayr has also been one of the most brilliant fundamental rights advocates that the EU has ever seen.
The cause of his life: the fundamental rights to privacy and data protection.
We live in an age of mass surveillance. Our privacy is intruded on a daily basis by states and corporations alike to take advantage of our personal data. Martin Selmayr knows this very well, and was exposed to the derives of surveillance from an early age. For him, it is actually a family matter. His grandfather was the head of West Germany’s counterintelligence service during the cold war, between 1955 and 1964. His work was in essence to counteract the infamously far-reaching surveillance efforts of the East German Stasi.
With that in mind, and to prevent the EU from ever drifting into a Union of dystopian surveillance states, Martin Selmayr has designed a powerful weapon to defend ourselves. He is one of the architects, some even called him the ‘father,’ of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As Human Rights Watch described it, the GDPR’s ‘new safeguards are particularly important for human rights in the digital age.’ It is the most important reform to offer citizens more control over the use of their personal data and privacy. And, because the EU is one of the largest trading blocks in the world, the GDPR is set to become a global standard for data protection and privacy – a much higher one. For instance, even Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, called for the US to enact a similar legislation.
Martin Selmayr has been a key driver to make the EU and its leaders aware of the importance of the rights to data protection and privacy, giving a full meaning to their status as fundamental rights in the EU. As Ryan Heath reported for Politico, people who worked with him said he was excellent at “knitting together a web of supportive activists, MEPs and data regulators to support the cause,’ that he has a ‘ruthless understanding of the theater of politics.” He makes “aggressive jabs, and strategic leaks, but he is humble around leaders and uses charm and friendliness to keep the show together.” We have had the opportunity to host speakers at UPF who have worked close to his orbit. They reiterated the exact same notion, that he is “extremely clever intense, and charismatic,” directly confirming his reputation as a political animal.
Unfortunately, this mastery of the puppet-show of politics dramatically backfired on him and the rest of the EU.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2018: the Selmayrgate
Martin Selmayr was the chief of staff to Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, a highly strategic position. In the Spring of 2018 he was, in a matter of weeks, promoted Deputy Secretary General then Secretary General of the Commission, exactly on the same day as his predecessor resigned. This caused a major uproar of the European Parliament and the public, due to the lack of procedural transparency. The Commission issued a comprehensive Q&A to explain and justify the path taken to appoint Martin Selmayr. Essentially, there was no obligation to publish the vacancy, and the decision was correctly made according to the discretion of the College of Commissioners presided by Jean Claude Juncker.
This is what the law says. And, indeed, his appointment was legal. However, what caused the scandal is that he would have used his former influence as chief of staff to advise President Juncker to ‘parachute’ him to the top of the Commission and “ensure [he] will retain a perch at the apex of power in Brussels beyond the end of Juncker’s mandate in 2019 — for as long as he desires, or until a new set of commissioners dares to try to remove him.” For that, he has been called the EU’s top ‘uncivil servant.’
His appointment made the headlines all across Europe and was even qualified as a ‘coup.’ The European Ombudsman issued a report on the procedure, saying the Commission had “stretched and possibly overstretched the limits of the law” and “damaged trust” in the EU, criticizing it mostly on account of conflicts of interest. This scandal has given Eurosceptics a fantastic argument to support their narrative that the EU is an opaque institution full of intrigues and evil technocrats with power but no accountability. As a matter of fact, Nigel Farage even said: “I want Martin Selmayr to become the most famous person in the whole of Europe. I want every voter across all the member states to understand how this place operates.”
He made the EU shine with the GDPR. He made a shame out of it with his nomination at the top of the Commission. It is incredible to think that at the same time a man can be one of the fiercest and most powerful EU fundamental rights advocate, and act in such a shameless and incomprehensible manner, making a fool of the EU. This remarkable individual seems to be capable of both the better and the worse. Unfortunately for the EU’s credibility, in the worse, he is also the best. Whether you love to hate him or hate to love him, I hope this short article has attracted your curiosity and made you want to learn more about this controversial character.