Michel Barnier and David Frost, two experienced post-Brexit negotiators

After the British left the European institutions on Friday January 31, the EU entered on Saturday January 1st February, in the second phase of Brexit negotiations with London. Until 31 December 2020, it will focus on the future relationship, in particular on the commercial level. The Commission will present a negotiating mandate from Monday 3 February, which will have to be approved by the member states at a ministerial meeting on 25 February. Discussions can then officially start. With Michel Barnier, the "Mr. Brexit" of the European Union and his British counterpart David Frost, at the helm.

  • Michel Barnier, tireless "M. Brexit"

European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Brussels on January 29.
European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Brussels on January 29. JOHN THYS / AFP

"I am a mountain dweller", as Michel Barnier used to say, in difficult times as well as in those that should be celebrated. This favorite phrase, this adopted Savoyard – born in La Tronche, in Isère, he multiplied the local mandates in Savoy pronounced it again on October 17, 2019, presenting the divorce agreement the European Union had reached with the United Kingdom more than three years after the referendum. No doubt we will still hear him often in the coming months, when he will comment on the progress of his discussions with London on the future relationship between the two ex-partners.

By December 31, the “Mr. Brexit” of Europe will have to achieve a small miracle: to establish a partnership with the neighbor across the Channel, the contours of which we do not know to date, but which will have to be understood trade, fishing, finance and security issues. "We have to rebuild everything", said the Frenchman several times, who does not exclude that the affair ends in "No deal".

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Michel Barnier is a convinced European. Born in 1951, like the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), he likes to recall that it was in 1972 that he voted for the first time, during the referendum on the entry of the United Kingdom in the Union. Unloved in Paris, where his lack of taste for well-cut little political phrases and his lack of glamor undoubtedly harmed him, this social Gaullist knew how to make himself unavoidable in Brussels.

His sometimes hesitant English and his limited sense of humor have not prevented him from fulfilling his mission so far with talent.

Twice he was Commissioner, regional policy (1999-2004) first, then Internal Market and Financial Services (2010-2014) where he faced the City. Michel Barnier was then Jean-Claude Juncker's special defense advisor when the latter was President of the Commission, before becoming his “M. Brexit” in 2016. His sometimes hesitant English and his limited sense of humor have not prevented him from fulfilling his mission so far with talent.

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After being an unfortunate candidate for the Commission in 2014, he hoped that in 2019 his turn would come. But the man who was minister several times under Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy has never been in Emmanuel Macron's little papers. And the Elysee Palace did not appreciate its support for François Fillon in 2017, or that he called to vote François-Xavier Bellamy, the head of the LR list at the Europeans in May 2019. The president finally chose the German Ursula von der Leyen.

When in October the European Parliament refused Sylvie Goulard to be the French commissioner, Michel Barnier's name circulated again. Especially since the divorce agreement with the United Kingdom was sealed. But at the Elysee Palace, he was expected to leave the EPP, which brings together the European right. "Barnier has been a social Gaullist for forty-five years, he will not turn into a young person "Walker" ", decrypts one of his relatives. The "mountain dweller" continues on his way.

  • David Frost, Boris Johnson's trusted man

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's adviser for Europe David Frost in Brussels on October 7, 2019.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's adviser for Europe, David Frost, in Brussels, October 7, 2019. Francois Lenoir / REUTERS

The Europeans do not know him, the Brussels negotiators hardly more. David Frost, 54, will however be a key figure, if not the prime contractor for the negotiations that will take place by March on the “future relationship” between the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) ). Based in Downing Street, he will lead a team of around forty experts reporting directly to Boris Johnson, with no minister or secretary of state to play the intermediaries.

For Europeans, this hierarchical position – almost at the top – has a considerable advantage: when they speak to David Frost, trusted man of Boris Johnson, they know that the message will be transmitted directly to the "boss". When David Frost symmetrically takes a negotiating position, it will be unambiguously that of the British government. Even the whole country, given the large majority – conservative and pro-Brexit – entering the House of Commons following the general elections in December.

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In reality, David Frost has already been going back and forth between London and Brussels since this summer – Johnson called on him as soon as he entered Downing Street. But this career diplomat, former head of the European Union (EU) department at the Foreign Office, is a discreet man. All-rounder, even-tempered, always polite, almost distant: he is not one to take light in place of Mr. Johnson and has little to do with his predecessor, the brilliant Olly Robbins, chief negotiator of the Brexit for Theresa May.

David Frost is deemed efficient, precise, reliable but inconvenient and not very flexible in negotiations

However, no one underestimates it in Brussels. Reputed to be efficient, precise, reliable and at the same time inconvenient and not very flexible in negotiations, it is now crowned with the success garnered by London in October 2019. After refusing to discuss with Brussels, on the grounds that the "Irish solution" of the time (intended to avoid the return of a hard border on the island) was unacceptable, London made a sharp turn at the end of September. In ten days, against all expectations, a new divorce agreement was then finalized, just in time for a decisive European council.

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Above all, Mr. Frost is an authentic brexiter, one of the few in the Foreign Office, "And, in negotiation, this is a very important psychological aspect", judge a European diplomat. Mr. Frost also expressed his beliefs strongly in the Daily Telegraph, in July, just before being called to Downing Street: "It is not the role of British companies to oppose Brexit. " At the time, he was still the patron of the London Chamber of Commerce, after having been chief lobbyist for the Scottish Whiskey Association for three years. A curious journey for a diplomat, but the sign of a very practical experience of British interests.


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