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Overrated: Martin Selmayr
December 2017 / January 2018

Josef, the paterfamilias, only died in 2005, aged 100. His son Gerhard served as a civil servant at the German defence ministry, then in the Chancellor’s office, during the 1960s. Martin was raised in the Rhineland, once the focus of Franco-German rivalry, later the heart of Adenauer’s “Bonn Republic”. After the German capital moved to Berlin, Martin preferred to pursue a career in nearby, congenial Brussels.

The Selmayrs are a family of public servants in the German tradition that goes back to Hegel. Such officials (Beamte) saw themselves as above politics: their administrative skills were placed at the service of an idealised state. Fatally, they conflated the Nazi state with the rule of law. After 1945 they switched allegiance, first to the Federal Republic and then to the European project.

Martin Selmayr is very much a chip off the old block. Like many Germans of his generation (he was born in 1970) he has always seen Europe as a source of redemption from Hitler’s toxic legacy. In the late 1990s Selmayr flirted with the private sector at Bertelsmann, which was then becoming Germany’s biggest media conglomerate. As an intern, fluent in five languages, Selmayr seemed destined for the global business elite; there he met his later patron in Brussels, Elmar Brok. In 2000, however, Bertelsmann was exposed as having concealed the fact that, as the Wehrmacht’s publisher, it had once flooded Europe with anti-Semitic propaganda.

Having decided that his destiny lay in public service, Selmayr published a study of the legal aspects of the euro, with the untranslatable but characteristic title: Die Vergemeinschaftung der Währung (roughly “the Europeanisation of the currency”). This may be a key to Selmayr: not only the currency, but the economy and society must be Europeanised by an enlightened bureaucracy.

Hence Brexit, as a direct threat to this vision, is anathema to Selmayr. Though he disclaims any desire to punish the British, the leaks from unnamed sources in Brussels keep coming. Despite Selmayr’s denials, few doubt that they emerge from the presidential office; after all, he ensures that nobody else at the Commission dares to leak. After resigning as a vice-president, the Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva described the atmosphere there as “poisonous”. It is becoming clear that Professor Dr Martin Selmayr is, it seems, accountable to none. The existence of such overrated mandarins made Brexit inevitable.
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