Michel Barnier will lead the high-level political negotiations but will leave much of the technical discussions to the team of 30+ officials that he has drawn from the key DGs in the Commission. Sabine Weyand will be his deputy and comes with a wealth of trade experience from stints with Pascal Lamy as Trade Commissioner and more recently as deputy-director general in DG Trade. Her policy assistant will be Justyna Lasik, another trade expert, who has been involved with negotiations with Japan and South Korea.
A strategy, coordination and communication team is headed by Barnier’s principle adviser Stéphanie Riso. She was deputy head of Oli Rehn’s cabinet when he was Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and head of unit in DG Budgets for the multi-annual financial framework and budgetary aspects of enlargement. Her policy assistant is Marco Abate from DG ECFIN. Institutional affairs will be dealt with by Georg Riekeles, a former member of Barnier’s cabinet. His assistant is Tristan Aureau, an auditor from the highest administrative court in France. They will also be assisted by Randolph De Battista, a secondee from the Maltese Presidency. Legal Affairs will be headed by Eugenia Dumitriu-Segnana, who joins from the Council’s legal service, and relations with think tanks and communication will be headed by Stefaan De Rynck, a former Commission spokesman.
The Task Force is divided into three separate units dealing with Internal Market; Budget and Trade. The unit on Internal Market, Sectors and Cross-cutting Regulation includes a number of Commission officials with expertise in key areas of the negotiations: Francois Arbault (IPRs), Ward Mohlmann (financial services), Aurora Mordonu (economics), Tadhg O’Briain (energy), Nicola Pesaresi (state aids, competition policy) and Marie Simonsen (employment).
The Budget, Spending Commitments and programmes unit, that will have to deal with the thorny issue of the UK’s “exit bill” includes Philippe Bertrand, a former Head of Unit on the budgetary procedure and annual budget negotiator and Bence Toth, who handled budget management of the CAP.
The Trade External Relations, Internal and External Security unit includes Antonio Fernandez-Martos, a head of unit in DG Trade on trade investments; Stefan Fuehring ,who worked for the Secretariat General on pharmaceutical and consumer goods and Nina Obermaier , deputy head of the Swiss unit in the EEAS.
Finally, nothing this important passes through the Commission without the approval of Martin Selmayr, President Juncker’s chef de cabinet. He will work to ensure the Commission leads the negotiations rather than national governments. Richard Szostak, a member of President Juncker’s cabinet in charge of Foreign Affairs and Security, will act as the more formal contact point between the President’s cabinet and the Task Force.
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, will leave the technical details to Didier Seeuws who heads the Brexit Task Force in the Council secretariat. The Belgian diplomat was chosen as an experienced negotiator, comfortable in the world of technical details and the art of compromise. He will enjoy a close relationship with Guy Verhofstadt having worked as his spokesman when he was Belgian PM. He will also have to work closely with the representative of the rotating Presidency of the Council who will also have a seat at the negotiating table. They are likely to divide the roles so that the General Affairs Council and COREPER, both at 27, will be chaired by the Presidency, leaving Seeuws to chair the dedicated working party. For 2017, this would give an important role to the Permanent Representatives of Malta (Marlene Bonnici) and Estonia (Kaja Tael) , with Bulgaria (Dimiter Tzantchev) and Austria (Walter Grahammer) taking over in 2018 and Romania being there to conclude the deal in early 2019. The Presidency representative will also brief the EP before and after each General Affairs Council meeting.
Guy Verhofstadt was appointed as the EP’s “point man” on Brexit back in September 2016. The Parliament deliberately chose a leading federalist to be Barnier’s counter-part and to ensure that the EU’s interest were defended against any potential weakening from the member states in the event of their national interests being at risk. He will report regularly to the political leaders, giving an important role to the EPP and Socialist leaders, Manfred Weber and Gianni Pittella. Weber is already on record saying the EP will be a “very difficult partner” in the talks and defend European rather than national interests.
Once the negotiations start, Verhofstadt will also work closely with Danuta Hubner, the chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO). He will be expected to report back regularly to AFCO, where the key members include Paulo Rangel, Mercedes Bresso and Richard Corbett. Corbett’s stint in the cabinet of Herman van Rompuy when he was President of the European Council, will give valuable insights into the workings of the Council secretariat.
Veteran German MEP Elmar Brok, who is close to Angela Merkel and Roberto Gualtieri, Chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee, are likely to play a key role for the EPP and Socialists respectively. They formed part of the trio of MEPs, along with Verhofstadt, to act as observers during the negotiations led by David Cameron to find a pre-referendum deal. New EP President, Antonio Tajani, is likely to be less involved than his predecessor, Martin Schulz, but he will have the right to address the European Council. Verhofstadt will be invited to the Sherpas/Permanent Representatives meetings to prepare for the European Council.
EP officials will not enjoy the same up front role as in the Commission and the EP’s position will be driven by the MEPs. Verhofstadt will be aided by his long-standing right-hand man, Guillaume McLaughlin and Nick Lane, the Director for Interinstitutional Affairs. Allessandro Chiocchetti will be the contact person for Brexit in President Tajani’s cabinet.
Although he will have no official role in the talks, one cannot underestimate the influence of Nigel Farage on the whole process. The former UKIP leader will be the first to accuse Theresa May of backtracking on her commitments and will continue to attract media attention throughout the talks.