MPs voted this week to send Theresa May back to Brussels to restart Brexit talks, but the Commons apparently missed the message delivered in crisp English one day earlier: the talks were over.
The messenger was the EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand: the German official with a British sense of humour who loves Shakespeare comedies and Harry Potter, and has been known to describe any outlandish idea as “bollocks”.
Whether she has uttered that word since the UK embarked on its Brexit odyssey nearly two years ago with the triggering of article 50 is not clear.
But Weyand is credited with coining some of the most memorable put-downs of the talks: British plans were dismissed as “unicorns” and “magical thinking”, before being chucked into the Brussels dustbin. Above all, Weyand is the architect of the Brexit deal: her fingerprints are on all 585 pages of the withdrawal agreement that MPs rejected last month.
She has been in the Brexit engine room from the start, but it was her rare public speech on Monday that put her in the spotlight. News reports blazed with her punchy one-liners, evening bulletins reported her no-deal warnings, and the commentariat parsed the significance of her yellow jumper and chunky necklace.
“Such a contrast between EU negotiator Sabine Weyand – fluent, detail rich, serious, knowledgeable – and the succession of defiantly ignorant Tory MPs spouting their slogans,” tweeted the former Labour spin doctor and ‘people’s vote’ supporter Alastair Campbell.
Born in the West German state of Saarland in 1964, Weyand studied politics and gained a PhD in EU transport policy. She graduated top of her class of 90 students at the College of Europe, the elite training ground for EU civil servants. “She was a brilliant student,” recalls her PhD supervisor, Prof Rudolf Hrbek, who suggested she embark on an academic career. Weyand, who speaks French as well as English, had already set her sights on Brussels.
Before getting to know the arcana of international trade law, there was a one-year interlude in Cambridge where she studied political philosophy and English literature. She is a voracious reader, who loves Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. As a student she analysed the role of the forest in the Bard’s works.
In the dense thicket of Brexit, she is reputed as a formidable operator. “I would really not want to be on the opposite side of the negotiating table,” one EU diplomat said. Admirers praise her astute handling of the competing egos of the EU institutions.
“She is a rare breed. So many officials can either do the big waffle or they can do the minutiae of article 6 paragraph whatever. What she can do is grasp the technical detail and the political interplay,” said one EU official close to Weyand.
“She has got a real affection for and understanding of the UK,” said another EU official who knows her well. Several say she has a very British sense of humour, with a taste for sarcasm and irony. “She is really fun to work with; very direct, very quick, no bullshit,” said the official.
In a former job she was at the side of the then EU trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, in the European parliament, while he was getting a shellacking for an alleged lack of attention to chicken welfare in EU trade deals. As the “happy hens” hearing got fractious, Weyand’s phone rang with a cock-a-doodle-do ringtone. The room erupted with laughter. “She collapsed, embarrassed, in giggles, while Lamy looked at her like Captain Mainwaring, [as if saying]: ‘You stupid boy!’” recalls someone who was there.
Over the course of 25 years in Brussels, in which she has also worked on climate, energy and development, she bumped into many who would later play a role in the Brexit drama. One senior official at the Department for Exiting the EU, Alex Ellis, was a close colleague in Brussels. It is not the only example where UK and EU officials, once colleagues, have found themselves on the opposite side of the Brexit divide.
Weyand is credited as being behind the EU’s policy of publishing many Brexit documents, a decision shaped by the public backlash against trade deals and accusations that food or environmental standards had been bartered away in secret. Critics say the transparency policy does not go far enough. The EU ombudsman reproached the European commission for not publishing an “essential” document on the Irish border or revealing details of Weyand’s meetings – a rare blot of criticism inside Brussels.
The lights of transparency were also switched off when negotiators entered the “tunnel” last autumn, an intense phase of talks when the treaty text was thrashed out over long days and late nights. Before the information blackout began, Weyand told EU ambassadors to trust her to protect their interests. The member states agreed, giving her space to agree a big concession to the UK on the Irish backstop.
Insiders say it could not have been done without the absolute trust between Weyand and her opposite number, Olly Robbins, the steely civil servant regarded as Theresa’s May’s Brexit brain. But Britain’s Brexit fate is now out of their hands. The final act will be decided by politicians on both sides of the Channel.