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Main players jostle for position as Brussels waits for Brexit starting pistol

15 August 2016

After the initial shock of the UK referendum, the EU approaches the end of the summer recess in a reflective mood. No formal negotiation can take place until article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is activated, but the various players in Brussels are already shaping up for an institutional turf war over who will take the lead.

Council v Commission

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, which represents the Member States, wasted no time in appointing Belgian diplomat Didier Seeuws as head of the task force for the negotiations with the UK. This reportedly infuriated Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who dismissed it as a ‘power grab’ from the European Council.

The following month therefore, Juncker, who heads the EU’s executive, appointed his own chief negotiator, former European Commissioner and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

Who is Michel Barnier? Download our profile now.

It is not totally clear how the two will interact, but it is likely that the Commission will take the lead on the short-term technical negotiations on extricating the UK from the EU, while the European Council will consider the longer-term strategic relationship. If this is the case, it is interesting that the Commission appears to have appointed the more political figure, while the Council has produced a technocrat.

A difference in approach

There are certainly some instructive differences between the two figures. Generally described in the media as ‘smooth-talking’ and ‘silver-haired’, Michel Barnier tends to make an impression, and has a reputation for being fond of grabbing the headlines. He is also viewed as something of an outsider in French politics, not attending the traditional ENA school in Paris, having a strong regional focus, and a pragmatist rather than an intellectual. Critics refer to him unkindly as the ‘cretin des alpes’.

Didier Seeuws, on the other hand, has had a more conventional career, has a much lower profile, and is viewed as much stronger on the technicalities. The Guardian quotes a former colleague who describes him as “very good at plunging into the most technical issues, but he always understands the political dynamic”. He is not a figure that many had heard of before June.

The reaction to the appointments, too, can hardly have been more different – Seeuws’ announcement slipped by virtually unnoticed, whereas the news about Barnier met with a furious and polarising response in the UK, with even the relatively sober Sunday Times speaking of an “act of war”.

MEPs demand a voice

Meanwhile the European Parliament is also attempting to carve out a role for itself in the negotiations, although its formal responsibilities extend only as far as approving the final settlement. It immediately adopted a resolution calling for MEPs to be “fully involved at all stages of the various procedures”.

But despite all of its internal positioning, Brussels is nevertheless in a kind of limbo until the British government activates article 50 of the treaty, beginning the formal negotiation process. With this unlikely to happen until 2017, Barnier, Seeuws and co. may be kicking their heels for a while.

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Alex Boxell, Customer Engagement Manager
Alex Boxell
Customer Engagement Manager

As Customer Engagement Manager, Alex Boxell is responsible for the strategic development of DeHavilland's core products.