So, it begins. The Big Bang happened and now the UK is on the road, in its first hours of independence from the EU. A 2-year process begins, which will put to the test the diplomatic and political skills of several people, which, one day, history will hold responsible for shaping the fate of millions.
Who is who in the Brexit negotiations?
Theresa May’s decision of triggering Article 50 has been defined as the single most important event after WWII and this is not an exaggeration. On her shoulders, it has fallen the burden of leading the country into an unknown and insecure solitary path in times that the world is increasingly and irreversibly more global than ever. Theresa May has become the Prime minister of Great Britain, after she was elected to replace David Cameron, who resigned after the referendum in June 2016.
Born in 1956, in small town in the Sussex region, May grew up as an only child in the family of the local vicar and his housewife, a strong supporter of the Conservative party. She graduated from Oxford university, with a bachelor in Geography and had her first job in 1977 in the Bank of England. Ms May got involved in the public sector in 1986, presumably inspired by the example of another powerful woman at this time – Margaret Thatcher. Her first position was as a councillor for Durnsford ward on the London Borough of Merton which she had taken until 1994. Then followed 3 years of election battles, until 1997, when she was elected a Member of Parliament (MP). From that point on, her career torpedoed, she became first member of the Shadow Cabinet and in 2010 was appointed as Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality in the first David Cameron Cabinet. Her first years as a governing politician marked the tone of many of her later positions as Prime minister.
One of the most controversial decisions she took as Home Secretary was banning Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik from entering the UK. She supported her resolution by saying that “numerous comments made by Dr Naik are evidence to me of his unacceptable behaviour”. The preacher oppose that the ban was given for political rather than legal reason and The Telegraph published an article where was stated that a Home office official who opposed May’s decision were barred from the post. In June 2010, she announced also a plan for temporary limit on the UK visas for non-EU immigrants. Decreasing the level of immigration has become one of her main promises as Prime Minister and one of the crucial points Brexit was voted with YES from 52.2% of the voters.
“Brexit means Brexit.” That powerful sentence together with her firm position for “no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door” won Theresa May’s Conservative party support and she was elected as leader and Prime Minister of the country. During the 9 months of her governing, she remained true to her beliefs, despite the rising worries of an insecure future outside the EU for millions of people. May has spoken about a “hard” Brexit and leaving without a deal if the Union put too high a price on the exit door. However, on the day of triggering article 50, the British Prime minister used a more humble and softer tone towards the EU leaders. She spoke about leaving the Union but not leaving Europe and staying “committed partners and allies to our friends”.
According to political analysts, that new warmer and calmer attitude is realistic but maybe coming too late. If Theresa May is looking for a more flexible deal, adapting her promises about restricting immigration and cutting all ties with the European court of justice, this might come at a cost; causing hard criticism from Brexiteers and a possible increase in the political power of populists like Nigel Farage.
David Davis has been chosen as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and he will be the main diplomat for the UK on the negotiation table. Davis is known as one of the UK’s most prominent Brexit supporters, convinced that the EU would agree on allowances facing the danger of losing an important economic partner.
Born in 1948 in York, Davis spent his first years surrounded by the family of his single mother. When she remarried, the family moved to London. As a student, Davis had a minor interest in humanitarian studies and chose to study Molecular and computer Sciences. His career path continued in agriculture where he stayed for 17 years, working for the British international company Tate & Lyle.
His political career began in 1987 when he was elected as an MP for Boothferry. In 1994 he was elected to Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and remained in the position until 1997. In a recent interview for “Yorkshire Post” the 67-year old confessed that he was nicknamed “The Charming Bastard” by his European colleagues at that time.
Will his charms and skills get the best deal for the UK? A very complicated task is in front of Davis. He needs to find a way to fulfill the Brexiteers dream – remaining within the EU single market but restricting EU-immigration. According to him, the UK needs to accept the tactic of waiting. In his own book on negotiating tactics (How to Turn Round a Company, 1988) he states “quick negotiations are very bad for one party or the other” and believes “losers make the first concession on major issues”. Back in the days he outlined those statements inspired by his business career and apparently he stays true to them. “Once the European nations realise that we are not going to budge on control of our borders, they will want to talk, in their own interest. There may be some complexities moving their operations in the UK, through the people they employ and the sales they generate, will more than offset any reduced corporation tax,” Mr. Davis wrote in Conservative Home, prior to Article 50 being triggered.
The EU side
On the other side of the table, the EU’s main players are: for the European Commission, the former French minister Michel Barnier and for the European Parliament, the former Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
Michel Barnier has served in different ministerial positions and in several French governments since 1993. In 2009 he was elected as a Member of the European Parliament where he took the position of the European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. In December 2016, he was appointed as the European Chief Negotiator for Brexit.
The 66-year-old Barnier is considered a diplomat with good sense for negotiations and empathetic skills. He proved himself in the early days of his career when as a Minister of the Environment and Way of Life managed to push an unpopular budget restriction and yet keep the support of the French farmers. Many of his European colleagues are impressed by his profound vision for the future and “nose” for sensing political currents.
In the UK, his appointment as the EU’s leading diplomat on Brexit was welcomed with concern, and “set alarm bells ringing in the City of London”. Barnier is known for his support for strong control over the markets and many are worried he will oppose the British remaining in the single market. Once he was even described by the Telegraph as “Europe’s most dangerous man – equally loved and loathed”.
Guy Maurice Marie Louise Verhofstadt
Known as one of the main supporters of the “federal idea” about the future of the EU, the 64-year-old Belgian politician is expected to give a “hard time” to the British negotiators.
Verhofstadt started his political career at an early age. When he was only 19-years-old, he became the leader of the Liberal Flemish Student’s union and 10 years later he was the president of the Flemish liberal party. In 1985, at the age of 32, he is appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Budget and he was nicknamed “Baby Thatcher” for his age and financial views.
In 1991, Verhofstadt changed the name and the structure of his party, making it more attractive for politicians with wider views. However, the new party Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) lost the next elections and Verhofstadt had to wait a few more years. He got his first chance in 1999 when a massive food scandal had shaken the country and VLD became the country’s biggest party and won the elections. Verhofstadt has been Belgium’s prime minister twice until 2008.
In 2009, he became an MEP and was nominated for President of the European Commission in the 2014 European Parliament election.
In the next two years of negotiations, Verhofstadt will have a smaller role than Barnier, but he will represent an institution which will have to approve the deal and to authorise some of the legal agreements. Yesterday, after Theresa May handed the official letter to start the negotiations, Guy Verhofstadt announced a series of demands on different points in the future talks. They included a so called “draft motion”, which will be voted by the EU Parliament next week and basically will determine how much the UK has to pay for leaving the Union.
Guy Verhofstadt is seen as the main opponent of the idea of immigration restrictions. When many observers raise concerns that Brexit will once again divide Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, after years spent warming the relation between Belfast and Dublin, Verhofstadt says that “We will never accept a hard border again between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic.” For him, “Citizens should not become bargaining chips,” referring also to the millions of EU and British expats currently living in limbo across the continent.