‘I won’t be sad if I am called back to Brussels again’

Martin Selmayr is Head of the Representation of the EU Commission in Austria.

The setting for Martin Selmayr and the grandees of Europe could not have been more magnificent. In Salzburg’s Castle Leopoldskron, the Head of the EU Commission’s representation in Austria assumed the role of the host. This magnificent 18th-century building, surrounded by a large pond and park, is the intimate setting for the Global Europe Seminar organized by Austrian Commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Selmayr relishes in the elegant stage he can provide for the great and powerful. The guest list includes Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, Economic Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, and Finland’s Governing Council member Olli Rehn.

In 2019, Martin Selmayr had to give up his post as Secretary-General of the EU Commission. Instead of pulling the strings in the labyrinth of Brussels’ Berlaymont, the German now leads nearly two dozen employees in the Commission’s Vienna representation. When the former Head of Cabinet of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker moved to Austria in November 2019, sadness about his departure was limited among many officials in Brussels.

The top official was reviled by his opponents as Rasputin. His meteoric rise even earned him the scandal hashtag #selmayrgate in 2018. Even then, the envy of the smart and power-conscious lawyer with a talent for moderating was great. Extremely hard-working string-pullers are seldom held in the highest esteem – be it in the Commission or other organizations.

Bike tour across Austria

Selmayr has kept his tireless diligence in his task in Austria. Under his direction, the Commission’s representation is omnipresent in the country. Whether in the media, on social networks, or at events – no one can get past Selmayr in the Austrian capital. And if someone doesn’t want to come to Selmayr, he will come to them. The 51-year-old has cycled more than 2,000 kilometers from Lake Constance to Lake Neusiedl on his non-electric renovated bicycle from school days to discuss and argue about the future of the Union.

In the process, the EU official on two wheels also had to endure harsh criticism. “I also felt a lot of frustration. People spoke to us without any inhibitions,” Selmayr recounts. The border closures in the first phase of the pandemic, for example, were sharply criticized by his interlocutors. The EU does not have the best reputation in Austria.

But that does not faze Selmayr. The staunch European has held 700 discussions. He is proud of this: “The bicycle tour was a contact with reality.” To understand the sensitivities of the member states, he says, the representations are very valuable to the Commission: “They are the eyes, ears, and voice of the Commissions in the national capitals.”

The passionate man from Brussels has grown fond of Austria. “I am very happy in Austria,” he affirms during his marathon of appointments at Castle Leopoldskron. When asked whether he had felt a phantom pain after moving from Brussels to Vienna, Selmayr answered with a clear “No”.

In the same breath, the son of a civil servant from the Rhineland adds: “Austria has given me a very warm welcome. Here, there is no arrogance of a large member state. Here, Europe is a natural part of domestic politics.” That has its advantages. Selmayr comes and goes to the Chancellor’s Office in Vienna and other control centers of the Republic of Austria. The government’s more pro-European course after the unglamorous end of the Sebastian Kurz era has helped him.

‘The mantle of civilization is very thin’

However, Selmayr does not reveal whether the task truly fulfills him. After all, the part-time law professor is only 51 years old. What’s his plan? “I’m a commission official until I’m 67, and I’m passionate about it,” he said evasively. “My task in Austria could last a long time, but it could also end any day,” he adds ambiguously.

Selmayr has naturally devoted his academic work to project Europe. He is the Honorary Director of the Center for European Law in Passau. He also lectures on European law as an Honorary Professor at the University of Saarland and the Donau University Krems.

Selmayr sees himself as a passionate diplomat for Europe, especially in times of war. His grandparents’ confirmation present, a trip to Verdun, was a particularly defining experience, he says. He still thinks of the white crosses stretching all the way to the horizon.

His grandfather Heinz Gaedcke was himself still a child during the 1st World War. As a general in the Wehrmacht, he had later experienced the horror of war firsthand and created it with his own hands. “It is up to your generation to make sure that this never happens again. That was the end of civilization,” his grandfather told him. To him, that made it clear that peace was not a certainty, that people had to work for it. “The mantle of civilization is very thin.”

Many insiders believe that Austria is just a cozy waiting room for new tasks for Selmayr. The ambitious official certainly does not lack loyalty. “I serve the President of the Commission wherever she pleases.” Such devotion is never a bad thing for a public servant. And Selmayr is patient: “I supported the representation of the EU Commission in Austria for many years in Brussels. At that time, it had a model function within the Commission representations. That’s why I also wanted the job in Vienna.”

Juncker called him ‘monster

Selmayr has repeatedly proven that he can work until he drops. As Juncker’s “sherpa”, he has negotiated delicate and complex issues such as Brexit. In the process, he has also learned to endure media criticism. The British media have not exactly treated him with kid gloves. However, the nickname “monster” originates from his political foster father, Jean-Claude Juncker himself, Selmayr emphasizes. It refers to his iron discipline and therefore has a positive connotation.

Selmayr also works tirelessly on and off stage during the conference in Salzburg. He updates his network and forges new contacts. Selmayr is both a sprinter and a cross-country skier. He is already thinking about the day after tomorrow, say his critics. At the end of 2024, Ursula von der Leyen’s current term of office ends. Then the cards for top positions in the Commission will also be reshuffled.

He is ready for new tasks in the “most efficient administration in the world” in the near or distant future. “I won’t be sad if I am called back to Brussels again. There are many exciting tasks in the Commission,” he says. Meanwhile, his critics can hope for a new Selmayr. “I never stop working on myself,” he says very seriously. All that’s left now is the call to the European capital. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar and David Zauner


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