‘Am I bovvered?’ EU shrugs its shoulders at Davis resignation
Analysis: As Johnson follows Brexit secretary out the door, talks process set to go on
European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with then Brexit secretary David Davis at 10 Downing Street on February 5th last. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
“Am I bovvered?” as the comedian Catherine Tate used to say. The EU Commission was unconcerned at the David Davis resignation to the point of almost insulting the man.
The purpose for chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas, at the commission’s daily lunchtime press briefing, held before the resignation of Boris Johnson, was to avoid giving hostages to fortune, specifically to headlines like “Commission warns of chaos” or “Commission says resignation irrelevant”. So, better say nothing.
Was there nothing he would like to say in tribute to Davis’s sterling role as chief Brexit negotiator, The Irish Times asked him. Nothing.
Asked if Davis’s resignation was a problem: “Not for us”.
Was there no panic in the commission ranks, no concern that the Brexit talks might be affected? Panic? Qui, nous? “In this house it is very clear that our position has always been very cool. We avoided positioning the commission in terms of psychological elements – concern, enthusiasm, disappointment and so on. We are here to do a job.”
Indeed, a job that notionally includes providing journalists with a commission perspective on events such as Davis’s resignation.
Others, officials and diplomats alike, were a little bit more forthcoming when asked to “react”, though all off the record.
Most were quick to point out that Davis actually spent very little time in Brussels negotiating. A total of four hours this year, according to official records. He would hardly be missed. A much-vaunted warm relationship with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier – their shared hillwalking passion was often mentioned – was largely for show.
It wasn’t only that Davis’s role in the talks was never central, a role assumed week in week out by Olly Robbins, the civil servant who is Theresa May’s chief EU adviser and strategist, but the latter had effectively usurped his position in the chain of command. “There have been clear tensions for some time,” one diplomatic source observed.
Robbins has drafted most of the policy documents and May’s key speeches and many of these have reportedly not even been seen by the now former Brexit secretary until they were about to be delivered. Some reports suggest he had been out of the loop on the White Paper discussed at cabinet, due to be published this week.
Balance of forces
Had Robbins resigned, Brussels would have been deeply concerned. And offiicials here were wondering if Davis’s replacement, Dominic Raab, has sought any assurances on a diminished role for Robbins, or his own access to the prime minister and role in Brexit policymaking. Reports from London, on the contrary, suggest his department will be scaled back.
Now, of course, Boris Johnson has resigned too.
There is speculation in Brussels about whether the resignations mark a significant shift in the balance of forces in the British cabinet. Raab’s appointment maintains the numerical balance between hard and soft Brexit adherents, but there is also a political dynamic at play in the sidelining of two of the Brexit big beasts.
The resignations were being seen as a reflection of weakness of the hardline Brexit camp, of their political defeat at Chequers, and their likely muzzling by May if they remained in cabinet. It does not appear to be the confident opening of a new line of attack to overthrow May. The numbers are simply not there.
That may change, if there is a further rush out the door, but the calls from Brexiteers on May to go now ring rather hollow.
Crucially, diplomats and officials say that they do not believe there will be any slowdown in the talks process. Schinas insisted on the availability of the commission 24/7 and through the summer for talks.
Nor is there any expectation that the resignation will deflect the UK from the line set out by Theresa May in Chequers last Friday. Although most EU and diplomatic sources suggest she has not gone far enough in her new proposals – specifically in her attempts to distinguish between goods and services aspects of the single market or on free movement, or specifics on the backtsop – there is a general willingness to get down to talking as soon as the UK delivers its White Paper. That is still expected on Thursday.