Meet the Real Force Behind the Brexit Talks
(Bloomberg) -- In every negotiation the most important work is done by those in the shadows. Brexit has brought together a secretive English civil servant and a Shakespeare-loving German trade expert as the odd couple working to pull off the impossible.
Olly Robbins and Sabine Weyand sit across each other in round after round of often tedious, technical talks. They come from rival camps—he represents the U.K. trying to get out of the European Union, she is the Brussels insider with little interest in making the divorce easy.
But both have staked their careers on seeing the mission through and bonded over that common goal. The Brexit hardliners who are now in open defiance of Prime Minister Theresa May want to oust Robbins as they think he’s too close to the eurocrats: if they succeed, months of gradual trust-building will be lost.
Their partnership came into play on that damp Dec. 7 night when Brexit talks appeared to have collapsed only for May to emerge at 7 a.m. to announce a last-minute interim deal. Behind that victory was the invisible hand of Robbins and Weyand, working together past dawn.
It was a critical juncture in the two-year period thrashing out the U.K.’s withdrawal. The two teams of negotiators hadn’t slept much all week and were tense. In London, government officials were wrangling with their Northern Irish allies. Robbins, leading the British delegation in Brussels, was relaying the latest to Weyand, the EU’s point person.
With the fate of the entire Brexit process hanging in the balance, it was that line of communication that helped keep talks alive. In the end, the wording of a draft agreement they’d drawn up together went on to form the basis of the compromise reached.
Those who know them describe the duo in remarkably similar ways: sharp intellects, a dogged work ethic, and an almost magical ability to win loyalty or respect from colleagues, political masters and adversaries. Robbins understands how the EU works, in a way many back home don’t.
Both declined to be interviewed for this article, which is based on conversations with U.K. and EU officials in London and Brussels who know one or both of them, and who mostly spoke on condition of anonymity.
The negotiations have moved on, albeit slowly, since the December all-nighter. In March, they provisionally agreed on a 21-month transition period to start when the U.K. leaves the EU in March 2019. But with less than a year to go there is a risk it could all go wrong.
That would be a personal blow for Robbins, 43, and Weyand, 53, who’ve staked their careers on getting a deal. Their rapport is built on the back of that ambition. During that crucial week in December, and several times since, when discussions between their handful of officials became heated or hit a brick wall, they’ve taken a walk together.
Their private chats, just a few minutes in the corridors of the Commission’s headquarters, have often injected new impetus. They also get on each other’s nerves. He gets exasperated by her obsession with small details and how EU rules must be obeyed. She complains about the U.K.’s lack of realism. They reply swiftly to each other’s text messages.
“Without the personal connection you cannot have progress,” said J. T. Rogers, a playwright who wrote Oslo, the story of the back-channel negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “It’s the game underneath the table where the real discussions are taking place.”
Robbins has enjoyed a meteoric rise and already earned the respect of four prime ministers. After studying at Oxford University, he entered the Treasury and became Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown’s go-between in his choppy relationship with Tony Blair, who later made Robbins one of his senior officials. He was then employed by David Cameron as deputy national security adviser, before he spent time in the Home Office led by the current premier.
It was while May was home secretary, before the Brexit referendum in 2016, that he emerged as one of few officials she was able to trust. Crucially, unlike many civil servants, he also won the support of her former joint chiefs-of-staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Like May, Robbins is media-shy and trusts only a handful of people.
While he once had a reputation as someone who used to eat all the Werther’s Original candies in the back of government cars, he’s now known as a keen jogger.
Robbins cultivated strong relationships with officials in Brussels before the negotiations formally began. One senior European official involved in the talks describes Robbins as the mastermind on the U.K. side who, unlike many in the government, had a grip on how the EU would approach Brexit from the start: “He’s a very good asset for them. The brains behind the whole thing.”
That deep understanding of the other side is a problem for Brexit hardliners however. Robbins has occasionally fallen out with Brexit Secretary David Davis and pro-Brexit lawmakers say he’s been too quick to sign up to the EU’s demands. In September, May moved Robbins out of Davis’s department and brought him under her direct control.
Hardened Brexit campaigners fear he’s plotting to undermine their vision of a clean break and will steer May toward keeping the U.K. in the customs union forever. Some have privately called on May to fire him.
Over in Brussels, Weyand experiences less immediate political pressure. Although she must satisfy 27 governments, it’s been a easier ride than bridging the rifts in May’s Cabinet. Whereas Robbins has tweeted once in 2016, she is a self-professed news junkie who loves a sly retweet about Brexit.
Armed with a doctorate in political science at Germany’s Tuebingen University, Weyand is used to being the best prepared person in the room though her giggles help liven up some of the more boring meetings. Officials say her experience handling the nitty gritty of trade talks, as well as her reputation as a straight talker, made her the ideal candidate for Brexit.
She’s “trustworthy and very diligent” said Bernd Lange, the head of the European Parliament’s international trade committee. She doesn’t just have a technocratic eye for facts and rules in trade negotiations but “also had an understanding of the politics.”
That grasp extends to an instinct for British sensibilities too, honed in 1986 when she spent a year studying in Cambridge while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took on the rotating presidency of the EU and enacted the “Big Bang” liberalization of the City of London.
Weyand learned to love William Shakespeare, the comedies rather than the tragedies. “Germans DO have a sense of humour,” she’s tweeted, which might explain why she’s the only senior official in the Commission known to say “bollocks” to describe things she disagrees with.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.