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A Sudden Promotion Sparks an Uproar in Europe

An episode of palace intrigue inside the European Commission—the sudden promotion of Martin Selmayr, an aide to President Jean-Claude Juncker, to the top civil service job—has sparked an uproar by critics of the bloc.

Martin Selmayr, shown here in Brussels on Wednesday, was quickly elevated last month to his new role as secretary-general of the European Commission. Photo: OLIVIER HOSLET/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock


Valentina Pop and

Laurence Norman


An episode of palace intrigue inside the European Union’s top institution has reinforced criticism of the bloc among those who see it as the plaything of unelected bureaucrats or the tool of Germany.

The sudden promotion of the chief of staff of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to the job of the institution’s most powerful civil servant has Brussels in turmoil, and the complaints are reverberating more widely.

From the EU’s perspective the timing could hardly have been worse. The weekend’s Italian election was only the latest to show growing anti-EU sentiment in Europe. If the commission needed to refute the popular critique of Brussels as an anti-democratic clique of bureaucrats wielding power without accountability, instead the appointment reinforced the caricature.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker surprised commissioners on Feb. 21 with his nomination of Martin Selmayr to take over as the institution’s top civil servant. The 28 commissioners approved the appointment. Photo: STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

What happened? On Feb. 21, the EU’s 28 commissioners approved Mr. Juncker’s recommendation that Martin Selmayr, a German national who has been the president’s powerful right-hand man, should become the EU executive’s secretary-general.

The 47-year-old will head the permanent Brussels bureaucratic machine which stays in place as the president and commissioners and their cabinets come and go.

The promotion means that Mr. Selmayr, a key architect of the Juncker commission, is positioned to remain in an influential position after the former Luxembourg prime minister’s term ends next year.

Mr. Juncker kept the nomination close to his chest before Feb. 21. The appointment was made in a single meeting of EU commissioners in a two-step move that saw Mr. Selmayr first appointed as deputy secretary-general, then immediately promoted to the top job.

“It was a surprise,” Belgian commissioner Marianne Thyssen, in charge of social policy, said at a Politico event on Tuesday, though she said she supported the appointment.

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A national diplomat in Brussels said no government was aware that the previous secretary-general, the Netherlands’ Alexander Italianer, was planning to quit, even though Mr. Juncker said after Mr. Selmayr’s appointment that he had known for a couple of years.

“This was a coup. No one confronted Juncker as no one had been prepared for what happened,” said a person who attended the commissioners’ meeting.

After the meeting, commission officials indicated that Mr. Selmayr faced internal competition for the job—but the commission later acknowledged that there was in fact no other candidate when the decision was made.

Most EU capitals still seem relatively unconcerned, but a backlash is gathering force. The European Parliament is debating the appointment on Monday, after a majority in the body requested clarification from the commission. The Dutch parliament will also discuss it next week. That will create more political ruckus.

French media, led by Brussels journalist Jean Quatremer from the left-leaning La Libération, is abuzz with fresh information and allegations.

There have been several objections to the decision. First, Mr. Selmayr made enemies in Central and Eastern Europe during Europe’s migration crisis, when he devised a system to decide how many migrants each country should take in—and didn’t back down when Hungary, Poland and others balked.

He also became a lightning rod for criticism from the U.K. when Theresa May accused EU officials of leaking embarrassing accounts of Brexit talks to interfere with the U.K. election last May. He said he wasn’t behind any leaks.

Mr. Selmayr also hasn’t shied away from entering political debates, though he has a nominally back-seat role. “G7 2017 with Trump, Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Beppe Grillo? A horror scenario that shows well why it is worth fighting populism,” he wrote in one widely noticed tweet in mid-2016.

In addition, the haste of the decision and the lack of debate has been seen as breaching the commission’s aim of encouraging transparency and ensuring scrutiny.

The commission said it followed its rules “religiously,” as Mr. Juncker’s chief spokesman put it. It said the secretary-general job was never widely advertised in advance in the past and that the commission president has always been understood as having discretion over the choice.

Some are also complaining that the promotion of a German undermines the geographical balance of which country holds which posts in Brussels. German officials also hold the top administrative jobs at the European Parliament and EU foreign-service administration and head the bloc’s bailout fund and its investment bank.

Günther Oettinger, Germany’s European commissioner who is formally in charge of appointments, dismissed that objection, noting that in Berlin Mr. Selmayr is seen very much as a Brussels man. “He’s not an undercover agent for German politics,” Mr. Oettinger said.

The EU is trying to revamp its legitimacy and hopes to assume command of a bigger budget and broader powers. It has set itself up, in fights with Poland and Hungary, as a champion of rule-of-law and democratic norms.

“In the light of the recent developments in the household of the commission, we see that preaching about the rule of law is not authentic when it comes to the commission,” Hungarian government spokesman Laszlo Kovacs said Wednesday.

The handling of Mr. Selmayr’s elevation may not, in the end, concern voters, and Mr. Selmayr may prove good at his job. Nonetheless, it is a gift to Brussels’ many critics.

—Bojan Pancevski contributed to this article.

Write to Valentina Pop at valentina.pop@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Günther Oettinger said, in reference to Martin Selmayr, “He’s not an undercover agent for German politics.” An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote to Jean-Claude Juncker. (March 9, 2018)