Meet the four men in charge of the EU’s Brexit negotiations: Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, Guy Verhofstadt, Michel Barnier

William Turvill
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EU Referendum - Signage And Symbols
From left, Juncker, Tusk, Barnier and Verhofstadt (Source: Getty)

Brexit negotiations are often characterised as being between the UK and the EU. This is technically accurate, but the EU itself is comprised of several different institutions - each of which will have a different voice during the Brexit talks. In addition, EU member states will have their own interests represented via the European Council.

In other words, Juncker’s briefings may have mae the headlines but he’s not the most important person at the table. Veteran Eurocrat Michel Barnier will lead efforts on behalf of the Commission while the EU Parliament has put colourful MEP Guy Verhofstadt in charge of their interests. So, bring yourself up to speed with this cast of EU officials.


Job: President of the European Council

Nationality: Polish

CV: Former Prime Minister of Poland

Nickname: “Our Donald” (as opposed to the other Donald)

Key quote: “There is no reason to pretend that this is a happy day” - on receiving the Article 50 letter from the UK

How important is he? Vincenzo Scarpetta, senior policy analyst for think tank Open Europe, ranks Tusk as the most important EU figure in Brexit negotiations. “He is the one who is in charge of mustering the European Council consensus,” he says. “The European Council, the heads of state in government, will be the body, the institution that will give the political impetus, the political direction, to these negotiations.”

How to impress? Leaked details from dinner parties, alleged by Juncker’s team, and stinging attacks in response from Theresa May will probably not please Tusk. After last week’s row, Tusk tweeted: “#Brexit talks difficult enough. If emotions get out of hand, they'll become impossible.”

Read more: May vows to be "bloody difficult" in talks with Juncker


Job: President of the European Commission

Nationality: Luxembourgian

CV: Prime Minister of Luxembourg

Nickname: “Mr Euro”

Key quote: “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before” - Juncker’s last words to May after last month’s Downing Street dinner, according to leaks

How important is he? Juncker ranks third in Scarpetta’s list. He is not directly involved in the negotiations, with Barnier appointed to handle Brexit for the commission. “What Juncker says is going to be interesting as a bellwether to interpret the mood music within the commission,” Scarpetta says.

“But in terms of direct involvement in negotiations, Juncker – at least on paper – doesn’t really have a role.”

How to impress? Last month’s Downing Street dinner suggests Juncker will be a tricky adversary. The Luxemburger also has a rough history with May’s predecessor, David Cameron, who failed in a bid to block Juncker’s appointment as commission president.

Juncker’s chief-of-staff Martin Selmayr, who has earned the nickname “monster” and who was a big thorn in the Greek’s side during their bailout negotiations, also warned last week that “Brexit will never become a success”.

Read more: The wealth of Britain's billionaires has boomed despite Brexit


Job: Chief Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament

Nationality: Belgian

CV: Former Belgian Prime Minister

Nickname: “Baby Thatcher”, for his free market views

Key quote: “Any #Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking - it's time to get real.”

How important is he? Despite probably making as many Brexit headlines as Tusk, Barnier and Juncker, Scarpetta places Verhofstadt at the bottom of the importance rankings.

“Even the definition of lead European Parliament negotiator is exaggerated, because the European Parliament is not directly involved in the negotiations to start with,” Scarpetta says.

However, the European Parliament will have a binding vote on the Article 50 deal. “Without the consent of the European Parliament, there is no Article 50 deal. But, in terms of the negotiating process, the role of the European Parliament is a minor one.”

How to impress? Verhofstadt appears most concerned with giving certainty to EU citizens residing in the UK. He said last week that the uncertainty was “destroying lives” and should be “point one” in the negotiations. He once raised the prospect of Britons who had voted to remain retaining their EU membership in some way, but gave no details on this intriguing proposition.

Read more: Goldman Sachs chief warns City may "stall" due to Brexit


Job: Chief Brexit negotiator for the European Commission

Nationality: French

CV: Former French foreign minister

Nickname: “Le cretin des Alpes” - dubbed by the French elite, according to reports

Key quote: “Some have created the illusion that...the negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case. We need sound solutions, we need legal process. This will take time.”

How important is he? Running the day-to-day negotiating, Open Europe’s Scarpetta places Barnier second in his ranking, behind Tusk. “He is the one that the UK will need to keep onside. He and his team.”

How to impress? Like Tusk, Scarpetta suggests “pragmatic” Barnier would have been no fan of the back-and-forth between Juncker and May over last month’s Downing Street dinner.

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