Barnier and Davis face off on Brexit mountain

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - They have much in common, in public and private life, affirm a mutual respect and will be spending plenty of time in one another’s company, but Brexit negotiators David Davis and Michel Barnier are poles apart on Europe.

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Born into the tough postwar years, Brexit Secretary Davis in England and the European Commission’s Barnier in France, they both built careers on the right of politics, but often as outsiders, priding themselves on their personal links to the common people and keeping aloof from the elite.

They got to know each other quite well personally when they both sat on a panel of European affairs ministers in the mid-1990s looking at reforming the bloc.

Some personal chemistry may help to prevent the complex talks from descending into acrimony as Davis pushes to get the best divorce terms for Britain while Barnier negotiates on behalf of the 27 remaining EU states.

But Barnier’s career has left him a profound believer in European unity, while Davis is a eurosceptic of long standing.

Barnier, 66, cherishes strong links with his rugged homeland in the Savoy Alps, seeking energy in mountain walking, a passion he shares with the 68-year-old Davis, once an army special forces reservist who grew up in rough south London and who, like Barnier, is married with three children.


In France, Barnier rose young and fast in Gaullist politics after an education at a Paris business school.

But while he won respect running the 1992 Winter Olympics, and as a minister for the environment and later agriculture as well as a European Commissioner, a Parisian elite coached in the prestigious ENA civil service college never took him for one of its own. It scoffed at a perceived lack of wit and brilliance during his brief tenure speaking for France as foreign minister.

Davis also went to business school, in London, after grammar school and Warwick University -- like Barnier’s, a CV short on the establishment glamour that Eton and Oxbridge conferred on many of his rivals, including David Cameron, who in 2005 would beat Davis to the Conservative Party leadership.

Davis, who won a reputation as a rough-tongued “bruiser” when shadow home affairs minister, had the last laugh, however: Cameron gambled by calling last year’s Brexit referendum to try and silence Davis and other raucous eurosceptics -- and lost.

While Barnier was moving almost seamlessly from education to politics, Davis had a 15-year career in business in the 1970s and 80s, at the sugar refiner Tate and Lyle, a company that took a stand last year for Brexit and, since Davis’s time there, has long complained about EU tariffs hurting cane sugar imports.

Barnier is “more European than French”, according to one senior EU official who has worked with him. Davis makes no secret of his deep dislike of the supranational institutions.

As they climb together the mountain of challenges that Brexit represents, millions of Europeans will be hoping that their shared interests can prevent them falling off a cliff-edge through a breakdown in talks.

Editing by Gareth Jones and Mark Trevelyan