With negotiations fast-approaching and Britain’s exit from the EU looking evermore imminent, Backbench investigated exactly who the main masterminds behind the structure of Brexit are.
Michel Barnier was born in 1951, the year the European project came to life. His first vote was in a 1972 French referendum to bring the UK into the EU club. A few years from now, his crowning political feat may be delivering the coup de grâce to that pan-European dream, walking Britain to the exit. Having attended the reputed ESCP Europe business school, whose motto reads “European Identity, Global Perspective”, this is a man with a fundamentally Europhilic outlook who will no doubt relish the prospect of increased integration once he has finished the process of severing the ‘sore thumb’ of the European project.
Davis’ early life included a stint with Tate & Lyle, at the time a faltering giant. Britain had just joined what was then the common market and the kind of cane sugar the company processed was being challenged by French-grown sugar beet. It was an experience that seems to have stuck with him as his stance towards the Single Market indicates support for a more Anglo-Saxon, free-market economy.
Both come from modest families, Barnier the son of an Alpine craftsman, and Davis from a South London council estate. Despite their unexceptional origins, both men were determined to take the world of politics by storm.
Barnier made his first political speech at the age of fourteen and was then made France’s youngest ever MP when he was twenty-seven. The experience of being somewhat an outsider did not correspond with an attempt to copycat the opinions of the elite; he was an environmentalist long before Al Gore had his hands on a picture of a polar bear on a precarious iceberg. As the EU's internal markets commissioner between 2010 and 2014, he led a post-crisis push to regulate banks, markets and hedge funds in the face of stiff opposition on many reforms from the UK. Not merely a supporter of EU protectionism, Barnier has also recently written a paper for Jean-Claude Junker calling for an EU army. He has that the EU “shouldn’t be held prisoner to the British question”, and it can be said without much doubt that his ambitions for the EU project extent far beyond Brexit and will inspire a swift and (to the EU at least) painless divorce.
As for Davis, he entered Parliament at a time when it was vanishingly rare for someone to become an MP via the path of state education, redbrick university and industry. However, unlike Barnier, his outsider status has perhaps informed a chameleon-like attitude to policy stances. In the 1990s he became a whip, responsible for persuading fellow doubters to back the Maastricht bill. Then he became John Major’s Europe minister, establishing a respectful relationship with one Michel Barnier. Despite this willingness to support the Europe cause to further his personal ambitions, there can be no doubting his fundamental scepticism of the project. His promise at the 2005 Tory party conference to “take back powers” from Brussels if he were made party leader was an eerie foreshadow of the Vote Leave battle cry of “Take Back Control”.
The contrast between the two men could hardly be starker. Barnier is cool-headed pragmatist, perhaps a rare trait for a French politician. Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin says the British should expect a negotiator who will take their mandate and “stick to it”. He adds: “He is not an opportunist negotiator . . . there are some pirates in politics, but he is not a pirate.” One cannot help but be given the impression of a man who is, barring intellect and political nous, a bit ordinary. He sleeps well, exercises hard and is happiest with a meal of fish and spinach. Raffarin calls him a “fundamentally serious person”.
Davis, meanwhile, revels in the limelight. “There’s something rather Churchillian about him,” mused one of David Davis’s admirers in a recent TV profile. “He’s had his successes and he’s had his wilderness years – and now he’s back.” He has been “shit of the year”, the recipient of the annual whips’ office award for the most awkward and unpleasant backbencher. According to The Guardian, “he loves holding court at a bar or a party, where nowadays he is watched anxiously from a discreet distance by one of his special advisers. Davis enjoys being one of the lads.”
What was said of them?
The Telegraph called Barnier “the most dangerous man in Europe” when he was appointed to clear up the financial services sector in the wake of the banking crisis in 2008 largely because they anticipated reams of financial legislation that favoured France’s economic interests over that of the City. The fear in 2017 differs little: Barnier reportedly holds something of a grudge against Britain after losing his job after the French government lost a referendum on the European Constitution. France held a referendum on the constitution after Tony Blair, the then Labour Prime Minister, promised one in Britain. As a result, Nick Clegg maintains to this day that he “is no friend of the City of London”.
Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave mastermind, called Davis “as vain as Narcissus”, who is “thick as mince” and “lazy as a toad” when pictures emerged of the UK diplomats without any documents prepared for the first round of negotiations.
What they said on Brexit
Barnier has claimed “I’m not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking,” in response to Boris Johnson’s suggestion that he should “go whistle” if he demanded a divorce bill.
Davis has said "I'm pretty sure, I am not 100% sure, you can never be, it's a negotiation” when asked by Andrew Marr on the likelihood of securing a free-trade deal with the EU.
A Backbench Report by Tom Mitchell