Key EU players
Members of the European Council: The European Council is comprised of heads of state or government of EU countries, the European Commission President, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The European Council defines the overall political direction and priorities of the European Union, and sets the EU’s policy agenda by adopting conclusions during European Council meetings, reflecting the fact that is it not one of the EU’s legislating institutions. It takes most of its decisions by consensus. However, in certain specific cases outlined in the EU treaties, it decides by unanimity or by qualified majority. Brexit is one such case. Article 50.3 of the TEU requires unanimity on the extension of any negotiation to withdraw after two years, but only requires a qualified majority to make a decision on the outcome of the negotiation with the withdrawing state, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
Donald Tusk: On 1 December 2014, Donald Tusk replaced the outgoing President of the European Council. As set out in Article 15.5 of the TEU, the President is elected by qualified majority by the Council for a term of two and a half years and can be appointed for a maximum of two terms i.e. a total of five years. Upon receiving the Article 50 letter, he indicated that he and the EU Commission have a strong mandate to protect the interests of the EU27, that their goal is to minimise the costs of Brexit for EU citizens, businesses and member states, and that the EU27 will be acting as one in the negotiations.
Didier Seeuws: On 24 June 2016, Didier Seeuws was appointed by President Donald Tusk to coordinate negotiations with Britain on its exit from the European Union. As head of the European Council Task Force (or Special Task Force) on the UK, it is understood that Seeuws will coordinate the politically sensitive aspects of the Brexit negotiation. (Reported by EFE, The Guardian and Reuters.) An Open Europe blog credits him with drafting the European Council draft guidelines.
Jean-Claude Juncker: On 15 July 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker was confirmed by the European Parliament as President of the European Commission from 1 November 2014 for a five-year term (ending 31 October 2019) in accordance with Article 17 sub-paragraphs 3 and 7 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). At a meeting in Malta on 30 March 2017, he threatened to campaign for the independence of Ohio and Austin, Texas if Donald Trump continues to encourage EU countries to follow the UK’s example and leave the EU.
Michel Barnier: On 27 July 2016, Michel Barnier was appointed as chief negotiator in charge of leading the European Commission task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the UK under Article 50.3 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). He started work on 1 October 2016, reporting directly to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who had appointed him. He was tasked, in the initial months, with preparing the ground internally for the work ahead. Once the Article 50 process is triggered, he will make the necessary contacts with the UK authorities and all other EU and member state interlocutors. In February 2017, he was reported as estimating that the UK’s exit would cost it over £50 billion. He has also written in the Financial Times on how he believes the EU and UK need to work together, which Politico has attempted to decipher.
It is now understood that the European Council, which is the EU institution representing the governments of the remaining member states, will focus on the politics surrounding the negotiation and that the Commission will be responsible for providing technical expertise. Moreover, while it has also been reported that Michel Barnier has assembled a team of approximately 30 staffers, some with notable political instincts as well as technical skills, to coordinate the EU’s position, it may be that he has little room to manoeuvre.
Guy Verhofstadt: On 8 September 2016, Guy Verhofstadt was appointed as the European Parliament’s chief negotiator on Brexit. Although the European Parliament has no formal role in the exit negotiations, once an agreement is reached on the conditions for the UK’s departure from the EU, it will have to be approved by the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE), is a confirmed federalist. His appointment was controversial, however, as the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) pointed out that the 751 MEPs were not given the opportunity to vote on it. Speaking at Chatham House, days before the Article 50 letter was delivered to Donald Tusk, Guy Verhofstadt indicated that those in the UK who wish to maintain personal links with the EU can do so.
Angela Merkel: On 22 November 2005, Angela Merkel, a member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. She has been Chancellor ever since, and in March 2014, became the longest-serving incumbent head of government in the European Union, and has been called its de facto leader. Mrs May met Mrs Merkel on 20 July 2016, and Mrs Merkel was reported to be supportive of Mrs May’s decision to wait until 2017 before starting the formal process of leaving the EU. Mrs Merkel is facing elections in the second half of 2017.
Francois Hollande: Key dates for the French Presidential elections are 23 April 2017 (first round) and 7 May 2017 (run-off, if required). The current president, Francois Hollande, declined to run for a second term in the face of low popularity ratings. Given France’s role in the EU, the candidate assuming the office of President of the French Republic will have a key role in influencing how the EU27 engage with the UK over Brexit.
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