Greg Hands is MP for Chelsea and Fulham, and a former Minister of State at the Department of International Trade.
The Commission’s top German Brexit officials are clear: the Withdrawal Agreement hugely favours the EU, and was always meant to be so.
The word from these top EU officials is that: “Northern Ireland is the price that Britain must pay for Brexit;” that the Withdrawal Agreement shows Brexit “doesn’t work”; that “the power is with the EU” and that “the EU has the best negotiating position for the future relationship”.
Much attention has focused on Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxemburger EU Commission President, and Michel Barnier, the Commission’s French chief Brexit negotiator.
But most Brussels commentators maintain that Brexit details are determined by their respective number twos: Martin Selmayr (Chief of Staff to Juncker since 2014, and – controversially – General Secretary of the European Commission since March 2018) and Sabine Weyand, deputy to Barnier.
Both happen to be German. Indeed, Die Welt, the leading German daily, early on in the negotiations did a feature titled ‘The top German players in the Brexit poker game’, with a certain pride, on their central role in the coming talks.
Selmayr and Weyand – the well-connected German officials, behind the scenes
They come from similar backgrounds. Both grew up near the French border (Selmayr, aged 48, in Karlsruhe and Weyand, aged 54 in Saarbruecken). Both are connected with the German CDU. Weyand joined it as a sixth former, according to a proud feature from her local TV station Saarlaendische Rundfunk. Selmayr, meanwhile, edited his own Wikipedia page to remove references to his CDU membership, replacing it with membership of the Flemish Christian Democrats, according to Brussels news service Politico.
Both are close to Peter Altmaier, who has long been seen as Angela Merkel’s closest ally in Berlin. To declare an interest, I have also known Altmaier for 12 years, but I have never met either Selmayr or Weyand.
The same Saarlaendische Rundfunk piece says that Weyand got to know Altmaier when she was a sixth former. The Die Welt piece says that Selmayr counts Altmaier also as a friend since that time. Altmaier is also from the Saarland, which hugs Germany’s western border with France. As it happens, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor as CDU Party Leader, also comes from the Saarland. In my experience of German politics, hailing from the Saarland tends to make one a Francophile, although Altmaier is also a great enthusiast for the UK, too.
Both are known to work incredibly hard. Selmayr is known in German as a ‘Strippenzieher’, best translated as a scheming powerbroker. He has earned multiple nicknames like the “Monster” and the “Beast of Berlaymont” (the name of the EU headquarters). When Selmayr chairs the Commission Cabinet – according to the FT – other chefs call their Monday meeting “the weekly humiliation”
Selmayr and Weyand’s approach to the Brexit talks: punish “the heretics”
Anyway, enough on the background, which is important in understanding what has happened since the referendum in 2016. Weyand was appointed soon after Barnier, on 1st October 2016. Selmayr has been in situ in one guise or another since 2014.
It has been clear from the beginning that the mission of senior Brussels officials has been to punish Britain for Brexit. Selmayr and Weyand appear to be no exception to this.
As early as May 2017, the Daily Telegraph reported that British officials believed that Mr Selmayr, an “arch-federalist”, was determined to poison the negotiations in a bid to “punish” the UK for leaving the European Union.
In September 2017, Selmayr was reported to have blasted Brexit as “stupid”. “He is a theologian who regards the British as heretics,” was how a former British ambassador to Brussels described him to The Times.
It is Selmayr who stands accused of having leaked the details of two dinners between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Although he denies this. The accounts claimed May “begged for help” and described May as appearing “anxious”, “tormented”, “despondent and discouraged,” and cruelly described how our Prime Minister appeared to be having sleepless nights.
Juncker – or more likely Selmayr – vetoed greater transparency in the Brexit talks and specifically recommendations from the EU’s official watchdog that Weyand’s role be more scrutinised and her meetings published.
What they now say about the Brexit Agreement: and why that should warn us, British MPs, in advance of next week’s vote
Since the Withdrawal Agreement was finalised in November, Selmayr and Weyand have left most of the public words to their bosses Juncker and Barnier, but behind the scenes various reports have emerged of what these two officials think. And these officials are the ones who know the detail best. Both have been clear that the Agreement is overwhelmingly favourable to the European Union.
The deal wasn’t even yet signed when Weyand briefed EU ambassadors on Friday 9th November, as reported in The Times: “They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules. UK wants a lot more from future relationship, so EU retains its leverage.” And that “we should be in the best negotiation position for the future relationship. This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship.” And also that Britain “would have to swallow a link between access to products and fisheries in future agreements.”
Dominic Raab resigned over the agreement, and stated that Selmayr had been boasting that “losing Northern Ireland” was the “price of Brexit”. “You would hear swirling around in Brussels – particularly the people around Selmayr, Martin Selmayr in the Commission, and some others – that losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit,” said Mr Raab. “This was reported to me through the diplomatic channel”. “It is one thing to defend your interests robustly, but there is another thing in the spirit of so-called European unity to be trying to carve up a major European nation.”
Selmayr told a meeting of EU sherpas on Friday 23rd November that “the power is with us”.
Unusually for such a senior official, Selmayr himself gave an interview to the obscure German regional newspaper the Passauer Neue Presse on 7th December, claiming that the agreement now proved that Brexit “doesn’t work”. “The Europeans are at one on the question of Brexit. All have noticed, that this exit from the EU, which the populists have extolled as a great success, doesn’t work. The other 27 states are united: they have negotiated hard and realised their objectives.”
And to put the ball back into London’s court, an unnamed senior EU official told The Times: “To use a Christmas theme, we want all parties and factions in the British parliament to feel the bleak midwinter.”
These are hardly ringing endorsements of a treaty between friendly, democratic and free-market nations. The agreement, in the word of the EU’s most senior officials, “doesn’t work,” it leaves “the power with us [the EU]”, and that the EU has “the best negotiating position for the future relationship” and that losing part of one’s country is “the price of Brexit”.
So what does it mean for the future?
Some might claim that these are mere officials, and that we should judge the Withdrawal Agreement on its merits, not on how others choose to paint it. There are three reasons why we should be further concerned about what this means for the future trade relationship, yet to be negotiated.
First, the same people are likely to be in charge from the EU side. These are people totally committed to seeing that Britain is harmed. These are also the people most on top of the detail. Selmayr even reportedly wants to run the trade negotiations, even though that would ordinarily be a matter for DG Trade in Brussels.
Selmayr’s views on trade deals in general is also very unhelpful for the UK. For example, there is strong evidence that he wouldn’t allow data to be included in any future EU-UK trade deal. He is reported to have insisted that deals “should include things like cars, cheese and beef”.
Second, Selmayr and Weyand have manipulated the negotiations to first insist that the Future Relationship needed to be separate to the Withdrawal Agreement (which we should never have agreed to – but that’s another story), but nonetheless insert the things that mattered most to them into the Withdrawal Agreement – like Geographic Indicators and the Backstop itself, which are actually all about the future relationship, and not about the divorce. This doesn’t augur well for the future talks. Nor does Weyand’s briefing to EU ambassadors that the agreement “requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship”.
Third, and most importantly, these officials will be growing in power in the coming months and years. Juncker will be gone in June, after the European elections, as will all the other commissioners, including probably the capable and experienced Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström. Barnier’s future after June is also uncertain. The European Parliament will be new and could well have a very different make up in numbers and in faces to that presently.
The continuity in Brussels will be provided by senior officials like Selmayr and Weyand. If they succeed in getting the Withdrawal Agreement over the line, who will be able to stop them?