Meet the Brexit negotiators: David Davis and Michel Barnier
The men in charge of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU are divided by culture, politics and personality but united on one thing — they need to finish the job
Michel Barnier (left) is known for his austere approach to life, while David Davis likes to think of himself as “a charming bastard”.
The frozen streets of Helsinki lie silent as the mercury plunges to -16C. But inside the British embassy, the lights are burning. David Davis, the man leading Britain’s exit from the EU, is trying to explain over loin of lamb and after-dinner cognac why Finland should help make Brexit a success.
It is late February and laughter echoes round the early 20th-century residence, as the UK Brexit secretary shoots the breeze with Timo Soini, the thick-set Finnish foreign minister.
Davis likes to think of himself as “a charming bastard”, which is perhaps just as well given the scale of his mission. This is the latest leg of a whistle-stop European tour - 13 countries in the past two months - to sell his idea of Brexit.
He and his boss, UK prime minister Theresa May, hope to persuade fellow EU leaders to cut an exit deal that somehow combines the “control” sought by the Brexiters with the kind of market access that Britain has enjoyed as an EU member for 45 years.
Next week, at a European summit in Brussels, deeply sceptical EU leaders will review the plan that Davis and May have set out - a pick-and-mix Brexit that seeks maximum access to EU markets with minimal obligations. So far, the EU is unimpressed. As Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s premier, put it this month: “They were in with a load of opt-outs. Now they are out, and want a load of opt-ins.”
Davis, a veteran Eurosceptic, needs a good deal. At the start of the Brexit process in 2016, he was favourite to succeed May in Downing Street but months of attritional negotiations and capitulation have taken their toll. He now sees this as perhaps the last grand act of a wildly oscillating political career.
“This project is as important as almost anything I can think of,” he says. Noting the old adage that all political careers end in failure, he says: “If I get this right, maybe that’s the time to call it a day.”
Meanwhile, the man standing in Davis’s way is not happy. Michel Barnier, the EU’s austere chief Brexit negotiator, is becoming visibly impatient. As Davis began his swing through the EU’s Nordic countries, Barnier recently told ministers behind closed doors in Brussels: “I know he’s spending a lot of time visiting you but I want David Davis to come to Brussels to negotiate.”
Barnier, 67, and Davis, 69, come at the negotiations from completely different political positions and with completely different personal styles, but their fates are inextricably entwined. Davis needs Barnier to help find compromises to smooth the path to his cherished Brexit.
Barnier also needs Davis - and a deal this autumn - to help propel him to the job he has long coveted. It is an open secret in Brussels that Barnier hopes to become the next European Commission president. A failure in the talks would be economically damaging for both sides and would wreck his hopes of ending his own career on an unexpected high.
For the moment, Barnier’s job is to represent the EU’s remaining 27 member states in Brexit talks and deliver an “orderly withdrawal” for Britain, while ensuring the country pays a price for leaving the club. His direct team is relatively small - a tenth of the UK’s approximately 600-strong Brexit department - but, like Davis, he acts as a political nerve centre, managing input from countless officials, politicians and lobbyists.
Despite all this, the contact between the two has been minimal. Davis may be a frequent figure in European capitals but, at the time of going to press, he had held no face-to-face negotiations in Brussels with Barnier, his political counterpart, since last November. The awkward body language when they do meet tells the story of two politicians divided by a common task.
“Davis, with his breezy self-confidence, sometimes finds it hard to connect with Barnier, who sticks firmly to the rigorous principles of the EU’s legal order,” says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.
Yet there are curious similarities in the zigzagging careers of the two men. Both are mavericks within their centre-right parties, both failed in previous leadership bids and both returned from the political wilderness to the frontline in their mid-60s, for one last shot at the top. Pride and a touch of petulance come easily to both. Neither are masters of detail, yet between them they have landed responsibility for Brexit, the mother of all technical negotiations.
In the run-up to next week’s crucial summit, the FT Weekend Magazine was given rare access to both Davis and Barnier, who spoke about their uneasy relationship and the negotiations that will determine both the fate of Britain and their own political destinies.
Back in Helsinki, Davis is demonstrating some of the useful Finnish facts at his fingertips, before moving on to stress the importance of maintaining strong economic ties between Finland and Britain. If anyone is going to listen to his pitch for a smooth Brexit it is Soini: the former leader of the populist Finns Party is a supporter of the unfashionable London football team Millwall FC and once paid his own way to attend the annual conference of Davis’s Conservative party.
The bonhomie spills out into the entrance hall. Soini offers in vain to take Davis on a tour of Helsinki’s heavy-metal clubs and presents him with an ice-hockey puck from the Winter Olympics. But, as the foreign minister leaves, a draught of icy Finnish air enters the embassy and a cold realism settles on the British delegation about the scale of the task ahead.
The Brexit secretary may be enthusiastic about leaving the EU but, on his tour around European capitals, he has struggled to find interlocutors who think the project is anything other than mad at worst or an unwelcome distraction at best. Davis says of his diplomatic missions across Europe that: “We want to make sure they all know what their interest is in the sort of deal we’re talking about.” In other words, he hopes the economic interests of the remaining member states in securing a good trade deal with Britain will overcome Barnier’s dogged defence of the EU legal order.
The moment of truth is approaching for Britain and for Davis himself. The problem that he keeps running into is that while the likes of Soini might say they want an ambitious trade agreement, they can - in the words of one British official - be rather “reticent” when faced by a powerful Berlin-Paris-Brussels triangle, whose main objective is to protect the European project. Brexit, for most EU members, is a second-order issue at best.
This is not the first time the two negotiators have found themselves on opposite sides of the table. Barnier and Davis have known each other since their days as Europe ministers in the 1990s, when they moved between castles in Luxembourg and an ancient nunnery on the Sicilian coast as part of a “reflection group” working on a new EU treaty. It was during this time that Davis’s Euroscepticism took hold, as he bridled at plans to increase the powers of Brussels. He revelled in his reputation as “Monsieur Non”. Barnier, on the other hand, went on to pursue a career that saw him fully integrated into the European project, serving twice as a European commissioner in Brussels.
“Michel is Michel,” says Davis. “He has a slightly rigid style, you can see that in his press conferences. But he’s straightforward and honourable. He thinks of himself, I think - and I’m putting words in his mouth - as European rather than French these days.”
The two men have played up their old camaraderie. But, in truth, neither remembers the other much. In the 1990s, both spoke through interpreters: Davis says his limited French at the time is now rusty while Barnier has since learned decent English.
Even Davis’s attempts to wine and dine Barnier have been a touch maladroit. Barnier is not one for small talk or feasting. He rises early, swims to keep fit and habitually eats plain fish and spinach. His occasional tipple is a glass of (French) red. Invited by Davis to the British ambassador’s mansion in Brussels for a working lunch last October, Barnier was duly served English sparkling wine as an aperitif, and a heavy beef Wellington for the main course. “Don’t they know him by now?” asked one puzzled Barnier aide.
Barnier has a spritely air when we meet in his modest fifth-floor office in the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, decorated with the customary EU flag. His mood turns more guarded when Davis is mentioned. “I’ve always been a patriot and a European, he has always been a patriot. We have a cordial relationship because I like this guy, he’s always very direct. I have a good personal relationship. But it is tough, not so easy.”
Earlier in the conversation, Barnier had suddenly leapt from his chair. “Look at this photograph,” he says, beckoning us over to a picture on his office wall that has animated his entire career. “Look at the respect between these two guys. They are two giants, two giants! Look at the respect.”
Pictured on the Elysée Palace steps is Charles de Gaulle, clasping the hand of Konrad Adenauer, a French president and German chancellor forging an alliance against the odds in 1962, embodying the spirit of postwar reconciliation that gave life to Europe’s great experiment in integration.
By Barnier’s telling - and he tells it a lot - he was 14 when he saw that image on television, sitting in a comfortable but modest home in Albertville, a Savoie town nestled in the French Alps. It was a political awakening for the son of Jean, a local businessman specialising in wooden cutlery boxes and Denise, a Christian, socialist activist.
Barnier was also inspired by his mother’s response to a searing family tragedy. Within a day of losing her eight-year-old granddaughter - Barnier’s niece - in a car crash, she had established an association against dangerous driving. “She was my example,” he says.
The Frenchman took to politics with an earnest zeal he carries to this day. By age 22, he had won a local election, taking overnight trains from Paris to his constituency twice a week. By 27, he was the youngest member of the French parliament. Before his 30s were over he had organised a Winter Olympics in Albertville. By his mid-40s, he had served as environment minister and EU affairs minister.
Where French politicians often need to invent their rural hinterland, Barnier was a man of the highlands, a genuine montagnard - and cruelly lampooned for it by the Parisian elite. He has straddled left and right, Gaullism and Europe, politics and administrative roles, taking on his mother’s advice to “never be partisan”. “It is proof of weakness,” says Barnier. “Being in the middle of the road means you are proud of your ideas.”
But above all, in the French political world, he is as sober as they come. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former prime minister, recalls his 22-year-old friend at business school “with the seriousness of a 35-year-old”. “Jean-Pierre often says I have not enough humour,” Barnier notes. “But it’s important, [AT]my age, to keep a margin for progress.”
In style and mindset, Barnier and Davis could hardly be more different. Trim, ascetic and well-dressed, Barnier approaches politics like a sportsman-cum-engineer. He describes himself as a “project man”, an organiser, ready with his bâton de maréchal to rally a common enterprise. In Brussels’ prolific but unwieldy political machine, he found his métier.
His sense of accomplishment comes from action. Former aides say if there is a 15-minute gap in his diary “he will go spare” for want of things to do. For Barnier, politics is method and explanation. Before EU meetings he demands a sheet of names, with pronunciation of first names, and biographies. Then there are the charts, diagrams, maps - carried in every job and every situation. Barnier is particularly proud of explaining a favourite colour-coded chart, mapping 40-odd pieces of post-crisis financial legislation, to Pope Benedict. “I have the photograph!” he says.
He is evidently enjoying his moment. With Brexit, the Frenchman was handed the job of explaining and defending all that he sees as sacred in Europe. “I know Michel Barnier well,” says Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner. “And it is as if everything he has done in life has just been preparation for this.”
Pierre Vimont, a veteran diplomat who served as Barnier’s chief of staff, notes he is something of an outsider in French politics: “He has this great trust [IN]Europe, which is not very common, the ability to strike up personal relationships with foreigners and even to listen to them.” There is also an unsinkable quality to his character. Barnier has often been written off, notably when he was sacked as foreign minister in 2005, blamed for botching a referendum campaign on an EU constitution. Like Davis, he has shown himself to be a comeback king.
When Theresa May entered Downing Street in July 2016 and made David Davis her Brexit secretary, she revived a mercurial political career that appeared to be drawing to a close. Davis was first elected Tory MP for Boothferry in East Yorkshire in 1987. By the time he ran against a youthful David Cameron for the Tory leadership in 2005, Davis already looked like the past.
Cameron brought him into his team as shadow home secretary, but Davis burned his bridges by standing down as an MP in 2008 to force a by-election focusing on his opposition to a Labour plan to extend detention without trial for terror suspects to 42 days. This was all the evidence Cameron needed that Davis was too reckless to trust.
May’s choice of him as Brexit secretary was a gamble, given that Davis, a former reservist in the elite SAS special forces with a penchant for mountaineering and flying - had a reputation for machismo unlikely to resonate with the technocrats of Brussels. Referring to Davis’s military career, his old friend and Tory MP Andrew Mitchell says: “He knows how to kill people, but only at weekends.” He adds: “When we go skiing, while I swallow hard at the top of a black run, he’s off.”
Davis says he was trained during the cold war to operate behind enemy lines and call in military strikes, possibly nuclear, on selected targets: “It would have been horrible.” His nose has been broken three times while playing rugby, once in a swimming pool accident and once “late at night on Christmas Eve” when he intervened in a mugging.
But the criticism of Davis from pro-Europeans is not that he is too aggressive in negotiations. Instead they are perturbed by a cheery insouciance that suggests he thinks everything will turn out all right, in spite of apparent evidence to the contrary. “I’ve decided the most depressing thing about Brexit negotiations is David Davis’s chuckle,” says David Willetts, a former Tory minister. “I get anxious every time I hear that chuckle.”
Davis attributes his optimism to his upbringing. Born in 1948 to a single mother, he spent his early years in a prefabricated house in York. “We then moved to a house in London which was a slum basically, two-up, two-down with an outside loo,” he says in an interview en route from Helsinki to Stockholm. “The big improvement in our lifestyle was when we moved into a council house in Tooting in south-west London. With the slight exception of that move to a slum, every year of my life has been better than the last.”
Still, early brushes with Brussels after the referendum proved a chastening business for the Brexit secretary. Within a few months, it was clear that Barnier held most of the negotiating cards and was playing them well. Before formal talks began in June 2017, Davis predicted “the row of the summer” would be the EU’s demand that Britain settle its exit bill before talks could start about a future relationship. In the end he agreed to Barnier’s “sequence” within hours of arriving in Brussels.
It was a humbling moment for Davis, who spent 17 years as a senior manager for Tate & Lyle and wrote a book in 1988 called , which included a section on negotiating tactics. “Do not make the first major concession,” he advised then. “Make piecemeal concessions with a declining concession pattern and keep all concessions low.”
This wasn’t the only time he had to give ground. In December 2016, the minister said Britain would seek a transition deal after Brexit “only if it’s necessary”. Ultimately, a reluctant Davis - under instruction from May - agreed to ask for a two-year transition during which Britain would stay under EU rules, but without any say in shaping them. When raising it with Barnier, Davis could only bring himself to say, “The prime minister wants...” In an icy exchange at Westminster in January, Eurosceptic Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Davis of leaving Britain as “a vassal state”.
The Brexit secretary’s problems were compounded by the loss of Theresa May’s majority in the June 2017 general election. May’s enfeebled position meant that she had to concede to almost every demand made by the EU in order to secure a breakthrough on Brexit talks; failure could have been fatal to her authority. Davis had urged May to seek a new five-year mandate. “David advised the PM to have an election but didn’t advise her to screw it up,” said one ally of the minister.
During the autumn of 2017, Olly Robbins, a highly regarded civil servant, increasingly took the lead in detailed negotiations in Brussels, sometimes leaving Davis in the dark while he dealt directly with the prime minister. Robbins now does most of the heavy lifting in negotiations with Barnier’s team, and sometimes with Barnier himself. Davis, according to his colleagues, feels that Robbins has been too quick to haul up the white flag on occasion. He denies a major falling out, but adds: “Look, there are always going to be arguments - not arguments, discussions - around which way the policy should go, what’s negotiable and so on.”
The Brexit secretary insists that he is across the complex detail of his brief, although it is a commonly held view in British government circles and in Brussels that he shuns the small print. One British official says: “Davis is lazy. He likes the grandeur of the job but he doesn’t read the papers.” Even friends admit that by the end of 2017, Davis was “knackered”. He claims to have haggled down Britain’s exit bill but admits that the first phase was tough. “It was a fairly static and defensive negotiation,” he says.
With the coming of spring, though, his team detect a change in mood. “His tail’s up now,” says one official. Davis won the cabinet argument about the proposed Brexit deal: he had long contended it should be a bottom-up agreement based on a Canada-style trade deal - he calls it “Canada plus plus plus” - featuring tariff-free trade with the EU, a close economic partnership and a new security and defence treaty.
Creativity will dominate
For Barnier, meanwhile, defining the post-Brexit future poses a far bigger political challenge than making the Brits pay past obligations. Davis believes that Barnier will soon have to consider more seriously the economic demands of member states.
He says French farmers, Slovakian carmakers and Swedish consultancy firms will start to have a voice and demand a Brexit deal that keeps trade flowing. “The next stage is going to be much more fluid because we’re talking about what will be the greatest free-trade agreement ever,” he says. “It’s an area where creativity will dominate.”
It’s this anything-goes mindset that team Barnier look at with cold bemusement. The contrast between the free-trading, small-state Davis and the dirigiste Frenchman who, as the EU commissioner overseeing a torrent of post-crisis financial regulation, proudly tamed the City of London, is unmistakable. Colleagues say the Frenchman becomes “physically agitated” by novel British ideas to virtually recreate the EU’s single market from outside. While Davis speaks of mutual interest, Barnier the “project man” sees the Brits fundamentally pursuing “a different project”.
One of Davis’s most important roles is not in direct negotiations, but in holding the Tory party together at home. “I guess I form a sort of bridge,” the long-standing Eurosceptic says. An aide to May confirms: “The PM relies on him as the expert on what the party can bear.”
But those who work with Davis believe he imagines his real moment will come sometime this winter, at the very last moment, during the midnight hour when the EU posturing falls away and real dealmaking begins. Barnier, for his part, recoils at the thought, pointing out his painstaking work with European capitals to maintain a united front. “I am not alone,” he says. “I don’t know if he is alone, but I am not alone. We are not building a speech, we are building a treaty.”
For all the Brexit hubbub, the real intrigue in Brussels these days is around another 2019 event: the appointment of the next commission president. Long accustomed to being underestimated, Brexit has catapulted Barnier into a rather uncomfortable place: pole position.
“I’m not fussed,” he insists to friends who ask about the job. But whether he likes it or not, Barnier is looking like the candidate to beat, the so-called Spitzenkandidat, when the centre-right EPP group gathers in November to pick a nominee to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker in European elections.
Barnier came within a whisker of defeating Juncker four years ago. This time around he needs the backing of his own party in France, which has sharply veered to the right and away from pro-European centrists like him. Then he needs time to campaign. A Brexit deal is supposed to come together in October, weeks before the EPP congress; Davis, however, is not in any rush. Finally, he needs support from EU leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, a French president in search of a young dynamic face for a new Europe. “Barnier is a consummate EU pro,” says one longtime friend. “The question is: do you want a consummate EU pro?”
While Brexit may thrust Barnier nearer to his ultimate Brussels prize, for Davis it seems to have snuffed out hopes of him one day becoming prime minister, even if diehard supporters still cling to the idea.
Like many Brexiters, Davis concluded that if May was toppled now, the subsequent chaos in the Tory party could usher in a Labour government and could see Britain’s EU exit derailed. He says he has no intention of moving against the prime minister. British officials express surprise that Davis did not rock the boat last autumn during a dark period of her premiership. “I chose not to,” he says.
Asked about this loyalty, Davis replies: “Look, we are in the middle of probably the most important moment in our peacetime history for a very, very long time.” And in an apparent swipe at foreign secretary Boris Johnson, widely seen as being on permanent leadership manoeuvres, he adds: “Messing around, destabilising the government, having internal rows, virtue-signalling to would-be candidates, these are all unnecessary distractions.”
By now the Brexit secretary has arrived at Stockholm airport for the flight home. Spending time with him, it is noticeable that he is perhaps at his most animated when talking about his house in Yorkshire, where he lives with his wife and an array of high-tech gadgetry. The place is equipped with a remote-controlled lawnmower and heating system that can be operated from the airport’s departure lounge.
Davis enthuses about the pond he has dug out, the hedgerows laid, the hundreds of trees planted and the hare, kestrels and coot that congregate on his land. He is adamant that he has not mellowed with age but his old friend Andrew Mitchell says he has: “It’s anno domini, really, isn’t it?” Davis, the man trained to bring down a nuclear attack on the communist bloc, now contents himself with potshots at squirrels trying to eat the bird feed.
His critics will not forgive him or his pro-Brexit colleagues for the damage they believe their project will inflict on Britain, but Davis insists: “I don’t have sleepless nights about that at all.” What happens if it goes wrong? “I don’t intend to get it wrong.”
For his part, Barnier says his “credibility and respect” rest on completing Brexit, not on what comes next. “I always drive home the nail. I say that to my children too - you have to hammer the nail in all the way. Go the distance,” he says. “I will finish this task.”
Barnier and Davis, two politicians given a second chance by Brexit, are divided by culture, style and personality. But they have this at least in common: they both need to finish the job. “I like Michel, I wish him well in whatever he chooses to do,” says Davis, looking out at the snow storm now engulfing Stockholm airport. Would he make a good European Commission president? Davis thinks for a second and replies: “Probably the worst thing I could do for him is to be his advocate in that.”
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018