Why so much fuss about one supranational official?

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Four weeks ago, Jean Claude Juncker appointed Martin Selmayr as the European Commission’s future administrative head – the so-called Secretary-General. This move came as a surprise, entered the respective Commission meeting agenda only last minute, and sidestepped the usual procedure for internal promotions. This staffing choice made it to various national news outlets (Le Monde, Zeit Online, and The Irish Times, to name a few), significantly increased online searches, created a veritable Twitter storm, and ultimately culminated into a rather confrontational debate in the European Parliament. For a public servant job in Brussels’ Berlaymont building, this is an unusual amount of public spotlight. Why so much fuss about one supranational official?

Clearly, Selmayr has made a controversial name for himself in the Brussels scene – not the least in his role as the current Chef de Cabinet, and thus major political advisor of the Commission President. And, of course, political context matters: The European Commission currently struggles to fight democratic backsliding in several EU member states while it itself is attacked for a lack of democracy by populist parties mobilising against the EU. In this setting, the allegations of patronage surrounding Selmayr’s appointment provide welcomed ammunition for the Commission’s trigger-happy critics.

But this is only part of the story. Outspokenly Europhile members of the European Parliament reacted furiously to this seemingly administrative staffing move. This, I argue, is driven by the fact that the post of the Commission’s Secretary-General carries much more political clout than its primarily administrative denomination suggests. Three key insights from research into EU decision making underline this.

First, as an institution, the European Commission is torn between being a purely administrative bureaucracy and a decidedly political executive – a tension that is reflected not only among European Commissioners but also among the administrative echelons of Europe’s central bureaucracy. Most importantly, the Commission has both informal and formal means to influence the legislative agenda of the EU. Informally, the Commission can, for example, prepare the ground for future legislation by framing specific issues as European, by launching investigations of the European Court of Justice, by conducting its own studies and stakeholder consultations, or by selectively querying public opinion. Formally, the Commission holds the monopoly of legislative initiative in many areas of European competence, meaning that the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament cannot act without a law proposal elaborated by the Commission. This grants the Commission an institutional head start into selecting the rules and policy options that are proposed for regulating European societies.

Second, the ways in which diverging interests are coordinated inside the European Commission affect the policies the institution finally proposes for Europe. Especially in this regard, the Commission’s Secretariat-General has considerable power.  It is, for example, exactly the Commission department Martin Selmayr now heads that signs responsible for the Commission’s five-year legislative programme. This responsibility yields influence on whether, which, and when other Directorates-General of the Commission can formulate European policy on specific topics. And once these departments actually draft legislations, the Secretariat-General controls the so-called ‘upstream coordination’, steering, for instance, which other departments get consulted internally or managing the impact assessments of different policy options.

Third, the Secretariat-General has a very long time horizon, which exceeds the usual office term of most European Commissioners, Parliamentarians, or member state representatives. In fact, in its sixty-one-year history, the European Commission has only had six Secretaries-General ­– excluding Selmayr’s recently started term – amounting to an average of more than ten years in office. While elected politicians come and go, the Secretary-General has the resources and the time to consistently work on legislative issues, set precedents, and built political momentum over time. This yields additional strategic advantages in shaping the contents of European law.

These three insights together lead to one conclusion: The post of the Commission’s Secretary-General is much more than a managerial position. Instead, it comes with significant political influence over legislative decision making in the EU. Against this political clout, a controversial debate on how and by whom this post should be filled is actually not very surprising. But against the public politicisation of the EU, it is surprising that the Commission (apparently) thought that evading such a debate ex ante was a smart idea.

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