David Davis has for months been sidelined during Brexit talks in Brussels: the outgoing Brexit secretary had only visited the European Union’s de facto capital twice this year, as well as meeting Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier once in London.
With day-to-day talks done by officials and led by Downing Street since December last year, meetings between the “principals” – Mr Barnier and Mr Davis – were noticeably absent from most negotiating schedules published all through 2018.
While Mr Davis’s departure is likely to have huge ramifications in Westminster and the Conservative Party, as effectively chief-negotiator-in-name-only it is unlikely to be felt strongly in the EU capital in a direct way, or to affect day-to-day negotiations.
As the news reached Brussels in the early hours of Monday morning the main question EU officials were asking was whether Theresa May could survive – and whether other ministers would follow Mr Davis out of the door. Two more did.
On Monday a Commission spokesperson reacted cooly to the news. Asked by journalists whether the minister's departure was a problem, he replied: "Not for us," adding: "We are here to work".
But he added: “I think it matters a lot for the UK side because this is the person that would be the counterpart to our chief negotiator, and I think it matters a lot.
“What matters for us is the negotiating framework that our 27 member states have set for us and with which we are complying fully.”
Asked whether the Commission was concerned with the changes at the top, he said: “It is very clear that our position has always been very cool.
“We avoided positioning the Commission in terms of psychological elements: concern, enthusiasm, disappoint and so on. We are here to do a job – the time scale is tight, everyone knows this.”
The main factor constraining progress in Brexit talks in Brussels has long been the politics in Westminster – both inside and outside the PM’s cabinet. The Commission and EU member states are not naive, and do follow events in SW1 quite closely, with an eye on the stability of the government.
Mr Barnier has always publicly voiced his respect for Mr Davis – and the pair enjoyed a cordial relationship, swapping hiking-themed gifts last June as a wry reference to the “steep and rocky path” of Brexit talks.
The fact that Mr Davis was previously a Europe minister was respected. Although his suggestion, ahead of the referendum, about bilateral deals with member states for market access did not go unnoticed and raised some eyebrows, as they are simply not allowed in the EU customs union.
He was also liked by many UK officials in Brussels, even if they did not see much of him in recent months.
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