EU’s Barnier pairs with pragmatic German to form powerful Brexit team

20 March 2017 1:23pm

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14 March 2017. By Simon Taylor.

When Michel Barnier, a former foreign minister of France, was chosen to be the EU's chief negotiator for Brexit, it was no surprise that his deputy would be a German, given the bloc's most powerful members desire to keep a close watch on the process.

But Sabine Weyand, a senior European Commission official with extensive experience in trade policy and battle-hardened from the trenches of EU policymaking, didn't get the job because of her nationality.

Many of Weyand's former colleagues sing her praises as a stellar European civil servant. "She's one of the quickest people I know," said one close associate. She can take a "360 degree view" of problems, which allows her to have clear sight of possible solutions, the official said.

Weyand studied political science and economics at Freiburg University and spent a year at Cambridge University. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the EU's common transport policy and started her career in the commission's industry department in 1994, dealing with transport issues.

In 1999, she was recruited by Pascal Lamy, the French civil servant and trade commissioner, as a member of his private office to work on issues with southeast Asia.

Then in 2004, Louis Michel, a former Belgian foreign minister, was appointed commissioner for development and humanitarian aid. Michel, a francophone Liberal, wanted Koen Doens, a Belgian diplomat who had headed his team at the foreign ministry, to lead his private office in the commission.

Doens was an outsider to the commission and didn't know how the executive worked as well as Weyand, whose name came up as an alternative to head the cabinet. There was just one problem: Weyand was identified as a Christian Democrat while Michel was a Liberal. In Belgian politics, you don't recruit outside your political family.

Michel called Weyand and asked if this would be a problem. Weyand told him no and the issue never came up again.

Weyand is very well connected within the Belgian network of senior EU officials and politicians that will play a major role in the Brexit process.

Apart from working with Michel, she also knows Belgian diplomat Didier Seeuws, who is heading the Brexit task force of EU government negotiators. Seeuws, in turn, was spokesman for the European Parliament's lead on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, when he was Belgian prime minister.

Weyand also served in the cabinet of forcer commission President José Manuel Barroso, where she worked on the politically sensitive dossiers of climate-change commitments and energy-market liberalization.

A former colleague called her a "less extreme Catherine Day," a reference to the highly regarded former secretary-general of the commission who had a reputation for pushing through the executive's priorities even when member countries were digging in their heels.

"She's an incredibly funny and warm person," one close associate said.

After leaving Barroso's cabinet, Weyand spent seven years in the commission's secretariat-general, rising to the position of director before moving to the trade department as deputy director-general last March.

Three months later, the UK voted to leave the EU and the bloc began immediately to put in place a team to handle the tricky negotiations. In July, commission President Jean-Claude Juncker chose Barnier to lead, and Weyand moved into her role as deputy chief negotiator in October.

EU officials say she will complement Barnier, who likes to surround himself with top-flight civil servants who can deliver his political priorities. Colleagues say she is level-headed and rational, which are much needed qualities in the bruising process of negotiating the UK's exit from the EU.

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