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Brussels Brexit bad cop goes global

You cant accuse Sabine Weyand of pulling her punches.

With her pointed, sometimes jovial, sometimes..

You cant accuse Sabine Weyand of pulling her punches.

With her pointed, sometimes jovial, sometimes brusque communication style, the 55-year-old German civil servant is bulldozing her way to the top of the European Commission.

As the mastermind behind Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier, Weyand has risen to remarkable prominence for a Brussels bureaucrat — driving the news agenda, particularly in Britain, with sharp public interventions, often in the form of tweets, aimed at puncturing the arguments of hard-core Brexiteers.

When U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay suggested in February that Britain could avoid a Northern Ireland backstop by using advanced customs “technologies,” Weyand dismissed such plans as “unicorns” and “magical thinking,” diplomats said. On Twitter, where she has over 41,000 followers, she shot down the idea in only slightly more diplomatic words: “Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years.”

Now, shes taking her blunt, occasionally confrontational approach to a new arena: the European Unions trade policy, where U.S. President Donald Trump, the continued uncertainty around Brexit and the “Green wave” in European politics each pose their particular sets of challenges.

“She is a technical expert, a manager, knows all the dossiers. But she also has got a strong political perspective” — Louis Michel, former European commissioner

Earlier this month, Weyand became the European Commissions new director general for trade, a job in which she will be the top civil servant overseeing negotiations with the likes of the U.S., China and Latin America as well as, crucially, future trade talks with the United Kingdom — whether or not theres a no-deal Brexit.

Weyand is the exemplar of a new breed of Brussels Eurocrat — faceless no more and empowered by social media to push their messages and agendas out from behind closed doors into the public discussion. What makes her different is the hot political nature of her files — and her willingness to jab her opponents when she feels its needed.

In a typical tweet Saturday, Weyand brushed back claims by leading Brexiteers — including Boris Johnson, the likely next prime minister of the U.K. — that Britain would be able to avoid trade barriers if it left the EU without a deal.

“As some are still trying to pretend otherwise, again, for the record: No hope of avoiding tariffs in no deal Brexit,” she wrote, linking to an article quoting her new boss, European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström.

Michel Barnier is flanked by Sabine Weyand, left, and Stephanie Riso ahead of a European Council meeting in April | Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Despite ticking many boxes of a classic Eurocrat — she studied at the EUs cadre factory, the College of Europe, wrote her Ph.D. thesis on EU transport policy and has worked in the Commission for 25 years — Weyand is no conventional official, say those who have worked closely with her.

“Shes not a fonctionnaire,” said former European Development Commissioner Louis Michel, with whom Weyand worked as chief of Cabinet. “She is a technical expert, a manager, knows all the dossiers. But she also has got a strong political perspective.”

A fluent and eloquent speaker of English, French and German, Weyand can break down complex details and present them in simple, snappy, but technically correct language — a refreshing alternative to the hectic political circus in London, for example.

Unlike her predecessor as trade director, Jean-Luc Demarty, who was often visibly uneasy in public appearances and only reluctantly briefed European lawmakers or journalists about progress in trade talks, Weyand seems to relish the political fray.

“Sabine is a four-wheel drive: She works a lot, she is intelligent, she can be very charming and she can be very mean,” said former WTO chief chief Pascal Lamy, who recruited her when he was European trade commissioner.

Weyand has also proven she can secure the trust of Paris and Berlin and maneuver at the highest political levels of the Commission, officials say.

Born in a conservative household in the western German state of Saarland, she has close political ties to Angela Merkels Christian Democratic Union (CDU). As a teenager, she joined the local CDU youth organization, where she met Peter Altmaier, now the German economy minister, who is also from Saarland. “She has quite a political head,” Lamy said.

“Barnier sold it, but she executed it” — Daniel Caspary, on Weyands role in the U.K.s Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration

Shes also willing to poke fun at herself. When a Twitter parody account compared her to Velma from “Scooby Doo,” the bespectacled but slightly frumpy brains of the cartoon group, Weyand answered, “Are you sure u didnt pick the wrong cartoon character?” along with a picture of Edna Mode, the even more brainy, bespectacled and frumpy character from the Pixar movie “The Incredibles.”

When another user asked for “the long German compound word for being really chuffed with a tweet youve done but then it only gets a few pity likes?” Weyand answered: “Tweetzustimmungserwartungsenttäuschungsgefühl.”

Though she mostly keeps a serious face during public appearances, people close to her say that she has a dry, if sometimes cutting, sense of humor. “I dont want to be in her crosshairs,” said one.

She is married to another influential German in the European Commission: Peter Wagner, director for neighborhood and enlargement negotiations and head of the EUs support group for Ukraine.

Weyand declined an interview request for this article, citing a very busy agenda during her first weeks in the new job.

Brexit task force

Weyands new role has traditionally been a technocratic one. The director general for trade is a policy chief and a power broker between different cogs of the Brussels machinery. The political figure in the limelight is the European commissioner for trade, currently Malmström.

The horse-trading that will determine who will be Weyands next boss is still underway, but the manner in which she approached her last job as Brexit deputy chief negotiator suggests she wont confine herself to the back office.

EU officials say Weyand was deeply involved in the creation of all parts of the U.K.s Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on future relations. “Barnier sold it, but she executed it,” said Daniel Caspary, a senior lawmaker from Merkels CDU.

“You have to be well prepared if you are negotiating against her” — Arancha Gonzalez, director of the International Trade Centre

Weyand has described herself on Twitter as an “avid reader” and a “foodie” and, in interviews, as a fan of Shakespeare — “but the comedies more than the tragedies.” (She studied English literature at the University of Cambridge.)

Before taking on Brexit she spent years working on trade policy and its possible that the knowledge she built there, combined with her cultural links to Britain, gave her a leg-up during the negotiations.

“The Brexit task force, that is Sabine Weyand. She was the one who brought people in, she was the one who made them work together,” said Lamy.

“Its certainly a pity for the British that they didnt have someone at this level on their side,” he added. “She had a concept of what had to be done and what had to be avoided, and she applied that concept in an extremely permanent and rigorous way, whereas the British changed directions every three months.”

Weyand is considered close to Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr, a figure viewed with deep suspicion by Brexiteers who think he harbors an anti-British bias.

Martin Selmayr, the European Commissions secretary-general | Olivier Hoslet/EPA

“Shes a strong negotiator, quite passionate and, obviously, a very loyal servant of the EU. I have a lot of respect for her,” said Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader who met with Weyand as part of a delegation of MPs during the withdrawal talks.

However, he added: “I dont think shell be any great friend of the U.K.” in any future trade negotiation.

Arancha Gonzalez, director of the International Trade Centre, said Weyand will be a “daunting” interlocutor, not just for the U.K. but also for other countries: “You have to be well prepared if you are negotiating against her.”

In a sign of how shes viewed in Brussels, some diplomats suspect she has even higher ambitions: to become the successor to Selmayr, the Commissions most powerful civil servant.

Trade headwinds

Weyands current job has no shortage of challenges. Like Brexit, the EUs trade agenda is technical but also very political — not just in its ability to penetrate the public debate, but in the potential for technical decisions to trigger dramatic political consequences.

U.S. President Donald Trump is poised to escalate a decades long Airbus-Boeing airplane subsidy dispute this summer by imposing hefty tariffs on a variety of European products. He has also threatened even more drastic import duties on cars.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization is facing an existential crisis as its appellate body will likely cease to function by December. And to the east, Chinas rise and its market-distorting practices are rattling the underpinnings of Europes economic model.

An even more formidable challenge awaits her on the home front: The rise of Green parties as a political force in many European countries means that the environmental impact of trade deals — and calls to include safeguards punishing deforestation or pollution — are likely to gain traction.

The Mercosur trade pact, a planned mega agreement with several South American countries, risks becoming the first victim of that trend, with scientist and lawmakersRead More – Source


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