Which way to the Brexit: 2 men on opposite ends of bargaining table

Mr Michel Barnier (left) and Mr David Davis.
Mr Michel Barnier (left) and Mr David Davis.PHOTOS: REUTERS

On the European Union side, a seasoned French politician well known for his negotiation chops. On the British side, an equally old political hand and longstanding Eurosceptic who is not afraid to speak his mind. As the clock starts ticking on a two-year deadline to reach a Brexit deal, Tan Dawn Wei looks at the two men on opposite ends of the bargaining table.

Barnier: A savvy Gaullist deal-maker

Michel Barnier


By some accounts, there seems to be no love lost between Britain and the man they are about to face in their toughest fight in a long time.

Mr Michel Barnier, 65, has been described as a Gaullist conservative who is a great believer in the European project and integration.

As European commissioner for the internal market and financial services between 2010 and 2014, he tightened the screws on banks and markets, battling with London bankers who resisted his reforms, earning him the title of "scourge of the City".

Perhaps as testament to his chops as a savvy deal-maker, he got Britain to accept all but two of more than 40 pieces of regulation that reined in short-selling and other risky activities.

The European Union has great faith in the veteran politician who, at 21, became one of the youngest representatives of the Savoie region.

Six years later, he was elected to the French national assembly and later co-organised the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville in his region.

Since then, he has held several ministerial portfolios, ranging from the environment, European affairs and agriculture to a one-year stint as foreign minister.

Mr Barnier's experience extends beyond French politics. He was also previously European commissioner for regional policy and has been special adviser to former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and current president Jean-Claude Juncker.

The latter position came after Mr Barnier lost to Mr Juncker as the nominee of the European People's Party for European Commission president in 2014.

It was Mr Juncker who, in July last year, entrusted Mr Barnier with brokering the best Brexit deal for the EU's 27 nations.

"I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job," he said, after naming Mr Barnier chief negotiator.

His deep understanding of the workings of the single market and financial systems will be crucial to the negotiations, although Mr Barnier has said that his top priority will be to discuss the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and Britons residing in Europe.

British Member of the European Parliament Syed Kamall, who met Mr Barnier after the latter was tasked with shaking up financial regulations, called him "hands-on, engaged and willing to listen to all sides and give the impression of trying to find a consensus".

Mr Barnier himself has given assurances of fair play: "We want an agreement. We want to succeed. Success not against the British, but with them."

Davis: Hard-nosed and likely to play hardball

David Davis


With his working-class roots and non-Tory pedigree, Mr David Davis has spent most of his life getting hard knocks and being hard-nosed. In fact, he has broken his nose five times - once in a fight in London.

Going by that alone, many believe he will play hardball when it comes to bargaining Britain's way out of the European Union.

Since a Cabinet shake-up last July after prime minister David Cameron's resignation, new premier Theresa May has given Mr Davis, 69, the monumental and unenviable task of heading up the country's Brexit.

When he meets his opponent, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, as formal negotiations begin next month or in June, Mr Davis will have to score the best possible deal for Britain.

To do that, he will have to harness his 30 years of political experience. A staunch and longstanding Eurosceptic and Thatcherite, he previously served as Europe minister under the John Major administration.

His background in corporate restructuring could also come in handy, along with some negotiating tips from his 1988 book, How To Turn Round A Company, where he dishes out tenets such as "Do not make the first major concession, make piecemeal concessions with a declining concession pattern and keep all concessions low".

Born to a single mother in York in northern England, Mr Davis studied molecular science and computer science on an army scholarship and later studied for a master's degree in business from the London School of Economics.

He once raised eyebrows for saying he supported the death penalty for serial murderers. Yet, he is most famous for championing civil liberties, once protesting outside the Houses of Parliament against a vote on allowing the government to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge.

When Parliament narrowly passed the counter-terrorism Bill, Mr Davis quit, forcing a by-election which he recontested on this single-issue platform and won.

He entered Parliament in 1987 after a career running British agri-business Tate & Lyle, and was later Europe minister from 1994 to 1997. In 2005, he ran for the Tory party leadership, only to lose to Mr Cameron.

After the EU referendum in Britain last June, Mr Davis advocated an "export-led growth strategy" in an article for the Tory party website, suggesting that the ideal outcome of Brexit was continued tariff-free access to the single market. "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," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Which way to the Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe