Martin Selmayr, the Eurocrat who leaked details of Juncker’s Downing Street dinner, played right into May’s hands
Two enigmatic smiles last Wednesday summed up the state of Britain’s relations with Brussels and the fight that lies ahead over Brexit. In the Conservative Party’s general election war room, campaign chiefs eyed the screens as Theresa May walked to a lectern outside No 10 and accused EU officials of issuing “threats” that have been “deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election”.
Sir Lynton Crosby, the Tory election guru, watched his latest client with eager interest and, when May had finished, leant back, satisfied with the prime minister’s work. One staffer said: “That’ll do it.”
In Brussels, Martin Selmayr — the most powerful man in the Eurocracy and the man May had in her sights — displayed the same satisfaction as he posed for selfies with a string of admirers. The “Rasputin” of Brussels had just been interviewed in front of leading Brussels officials, businesspeople and journalists, who regard him as a celebrity.
Selmayr, also described as the Monster of the Berlaymont (the European Commission’s HQ building), is the chief of staff of the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. He has been accused of leaking details of a confidential Downing Street dinner held by May for a top EU delegation — an unparalleled act of indiscretion that critics say is aimed at derailing the Brexit negotiations.
As The Sunday Times revealed last weekend, Juncker left the meal, picked up the phone to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and declared that May was in “a different galaxy”, so far apart were British and EU expectations of how the negotiations will unfold.
For three days May’s team had seethed, but they also realised Selmayr had presented them with a political opportunity. Struggling to persuade voters that Jeremy Corbyn has a credible chance of becoming prime minister, May and Crosby embraced the chance to find a new villain to drum up votes.
A senior campaign source said: “It was a gift. It was like a dragon wandered into Downing Street and Theresa slew it. People see Corbyn as a harmless arse. They see Juncker as a dangerous arse.” Another senior Tory said: “Selmayr is a shit and everyone knows he is a shit. But he’s our kind of bogeyman.”
Senior Tories say May’s speech has “tested well” in the party’s internal polling. Today’s YouGov survey for The Sunday Times reinforces that view. Fifty-one per cent of voters agree with May that Brussels was trying to influence the outcome of the general election with the leak and 24% disagreed.
Selmayr, a 45-year-old lawyer and portly political pugilist, rules the commission with an iron hand. He is said hardly ever to sleep and in addition to his day job finds time to lecture at two German universities. But, officials say, he harbours a peculiar animosity towards the British and their media, who have had a “foot on the brake of history”.
A British diplomat said: “Selmayr enjoys lobbing grenades into the UK debate. Unlike other EU figures, he is skilled in dealing with the media.”
Selmayr responded incredulously: “I only read the British press once a year, when I go to holiday in Spain. One can read that stuff for 10 days on holiday, when one’s blood pressure is low.”
A “true believer” in the European project, he has repeatedly said that “Brexit cannot be a success”, fearing that anything but a catastrophic Brexit could damage the European project. “An entire confidential dinner with a head of government being broadcast in full technicolour, undoubtedly with added spin . . . it’s an attempt to blow up the negotiation,” said a veteran European diplomat.
The animosity is mutual. A cabinet minister branded Selmayr a liar who had repeatedly poisoned the well of EU negotiations. “Martin will say black is white and apparently believe that it is so.”
Even senior EU negotiators distanced themselves from the leak to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, which even speculated that May was minded to sack the Brexit minister, David Davis.
Last week, Selmayr brushed off the accusations and blamed the impasse on the British government’s failure to prepare a strategy for Brexit. Clutching a pint of beer after his appearance on stage, Selmayr said: “I’m not an optimist — I am a realist, and I think that we will get a deal, but only if the British figure out what they want. Surely they will manage that after the election?”
Selmayr’s power derives in part from his hold over Juncker, whom British officials dismiss as a drunk. “I’ve been to four or five things when he has been shitfaced,” one said. “Off his trolley, hugging and kissing people.”
While Britain would like to negotiate Brexit directly with other EU governments, the commission was empowered by the other 27 states last week to lead the talks. The chief Brexit negotiator is Michel Barnier, a French conservative politician. But Selmayr is the more influential. “Selmayr is 10 times smarter and more energetic than Barnier,” said a senior diplomat who deals with both men.
Barnier “just sits like a lemon” in the Brexit-related meetings, said an EU negotiator, while Selmayr sets an “aggressive tone” towards the UK.
Last week, Selmayr summarily suspended Brexit talks after May declared that she would not be able to authorise changes in the EU budget because of the rules on political activity before the June election. He announced the suspension in screaming capital letters in a tweet that read: “FULL PURDAH RECIPROCITY”.
Selmayr first clashed with May when she was home secretary. EU officials believe May’s tactics for Brexit are an echo of a negotiation then, when Britain opted out of all EU justice and home affairs directives and then back into some of them. They describe this approach as “deluded”.
But many of Selmayr’s colleagues are worried that his scheming could end up damaging both the EU and Britain. Merkel was said to be “infuriated” by the leaking of the No 10 dinner details.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who chairs the EU leaders’ meetings, demanded “discretion” and “mutual respect” from the negotiators. Aides said his intervention was intended as a slap-down of Selmayr.
British officials say conciliatory messages were sent to Downing Street by senior Eurocrats dismayed by Selmayr’s behaviour. “They are embarrassed by the Juncker-Selmayr stuff,” a senior government source said.
But a veteran Eurocrat said it would be impossible to rein in Selmayr, so convinced is he of his rectitude. “Martin has a powerful vision of Europe . . . but as the saying goes, if you have visions, you need to see a doctor.”