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The British people surprised the world – and perhaps even themselves – when they voted to leave the European Union in 2016. As Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 and the countdown to Brexit begins, FRANCE 24 takes a look at the key players shaping the future of not one but two unions: The EU and the United Kingdom.





Texts: Tracy McNicoll
Copy editor: Charlotte Wilkins
Editor in chief: Marie Valla
Photos: AFP
Graphics and development: France Médias Monde Graphics Studio
Member Bio image

Theresa May

May, 60, won the Conservative Party leadership and became prime minister in July on the back of David Cameron’s resignation in defeat after the Brexit referendum. May is the second British woman to serve as prime minister – after Margaret Thatcher – although she reportedly deems “lazy” the swell of comparisons to the Iron Lady.

May’s six-year turn as home secretary under Cameron was the longest in generations. She had campaigned for Remain, but took up the Leave torch with aplomb after the vote. "Brexit means Brexit," May said in Birmingham as she launched her bid for the Tory leadership last summer. “The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.”

Verbatim:
"I know I'm not a showy politician," May has said, describing a low-key style that earns comparisons to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I don't tour the television studios. I don't gossip about people over lunch. I don't go drinking in parliament's bars. I don't often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me."

Impressions:
“Restoring parliamentary democracy while sidelining parliament; Mr. Speaker, it’s not so much the Iron Lady as the Irony Lady," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in the House of Commons after May’s speech detailing her vision for Brexit in January. “Can I urge [May] to stop her threat of a bargain basement Brexit, a low-pay tax haven on the shores of Europe. It won’t necessarily damage the EU, but it would certainly damage this country -- businesses, jobs and public service. She demeans herself and her office and our country’s standing by making these kind of threats.”

Photo credit: Ben Stansall, AFP

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Boris Johnson

A gaffe-prone eccentric known for his platinum mop and undiplomatic repartee, Johnson was a surprise selection as May’s foreign secretary after the referendum. The former journalist and zany two-term mayor of London had, after all, once referred to Hillary Clinton as “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and insinuated a sex act between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a goat to win a poetry competition. Johnson spent some of his formative years in Brussels, where his father was a senior EU official, and rose to prominence in the late 1990s as a foreign correspondent bashing the EU from the Belgian capital.

Johnson’s decision to back Brexit in February 2016 was a turning point for the Leave campaign, which gained one of Britain’s most popular politicians as a celebrity spokesperson virtually overnight. (Indeed, it was revealed four months after the referendum that Johnson had penned an unpublished newspaper column in favour of Remain only two days before joining the Leave camp.) A favourite to win the Tory leadership and become prime minister after Cameron’s ignominious exit, Johnson suffered a betrayal of his own when Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a fellow Brexiteer and close ally, slammed Johnson’s ability to lead and threw his own hat into the ring. Johnson abruptly withdrew from the race, while Gove ultimately finished third.

Verbatim:
"If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don't think that is the way forward," Johnson opined in New Delhi in January, after an aide to the French president had said the UK should not expect a better trade relationship with Europe after Brexit.

Impressions:
"Yet more abhorrent & deeply unhelpful comments from @BorisJohnson which PM May should condemn,” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, tweeted in response to Johnson’s WWII comment about Hollande.

Photo credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP

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David Davis

Theresa May’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, a.k.a Brexit minister, boasts a colourful litany of nicknames from his 1990s stint as a Eurosceptic minister for Europe under Tory PM John Major: “the master of constructive obstruction”; “the charming bastard” and “Monsieur Non”.

Davis, 68, lost a bid for the Tory leadership to David Cameron in 2005 in his second unsuccessful crack at the job. A maverick libertarian from a working-class background, the longtime shadow home secretary quit the House of Commons in 2008 to bring attention to civil liberties issues after a parliamentary vote on the Labour government's counter-terrorism legislation. Forcing a by-election, Davis won handily.

Today, his department holds responsibility for negotiating with other EU countries and for setting policy priorities for Britain's post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

Verbatim:
“To those people who insist that the EU would erect tariffs should we vote to leave, ask why would those countries damage their own trade with the UK. Out of spite?" Davis wrote in the Daily Telegraph a month before the Brexit vote. "If that is the case, then, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club which threatened to ruin me if I left it."

Impressions:
“The spin before today’s statement was so much promise,” Labour MP Emily Thornberry told the House of Commons in September after Davis’s first post-referendum speech. “We heard that we were going to hear what the Government’s strategy for Brexit was, but what we’ve heard instead hasn’t been a strategy, it hasn’t been a thought out plan, it’s just been more empty platitudes.”

Photo credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP

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Sir Tim Barrow

Britain’s new ambassador to the European Union is a career diplomat who generally cuts a discreet figure. A former ambassador to Russia and to Ukraine, Barrow also previously served as First Secretary, advising the UK's Permanent Representative to the EU, between 1996 and 1998.

But Barrow's arrival in Brussels was all but discreet. He was named to the post barely 24 hours after the surprise January resignation of his predecessor, Sir Ivan Rogers. Rogers' leaked goodbye memo to staff flagged shortcomings in London's Brexit preparations and revealed that even British diplomats in Brussels were in the dark about the government's negotiating objectives for Brexit. Rogers urged his fellow diplomats to "challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking" and "never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power”. He also warned that "serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council”. Earlier, Rogers had, controversially, warned that UK-EU trade talks could last a decade.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Barrow would be "just the man to get the best deal for the UK" and Brexit minister David Davis said Barrow's "knowledge of Brussels means he will be able to hit the ground running at a vital time”.

Verbatim:
“I am honoured to be appointed as the UK’s permanent representative to the EU at this crucial time,” Barrow said upon taking the new job. “I look forward to joining the strong leadership team at UKRep to ensure we get the right outcome for the United Kingdom as we leave the EU.”

Impressions:
“He is not just a highly skilled professional diplomat, but a real people person with the ability to listen, understand and report back reliably on what other European nations are saying,” Douglas Alexander, a former Europe minister under the Labour Party who worked with Barrow in the Foreign Office’s Europe directorate during negotiations over the Lisbon Treaty in 2005, told the Guardian. “In the end, that is what ministers in London will want. He has the ability to get alongside politicians, without playing political games.”

Photo credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP

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Philip Hammond

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is an understated government veteran seen as a safe pair of hands at a watershed moment of uncertainty after the Brexit vote. The 61-year-old minister is regularly described as “reassuringly boring,” a “grey man” loath to rock the boat, with a grasp for detail, as The Guardian described it, “bordering on control freakery”. He backed Remain, despite earlier voicing Eurosceptic opinions. Shortly before taking the helm of Britain’s finances post-referendum, Hammond suggested Brexit could take six years to conclude.

Hammond served first as transport secretary when the Tories won power in 2010. He was defence minister through a period of deep military spending cuts and a withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan. He served as foreign secretary during the Syrian civil war and Ukraine Crisis, and played a key role in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Verbatim:
“Less than four years after we finally escaped the last crisis, our economy now faces another period of change and challenge,” Hammond wrote in the Daily Telegraph after the referendum, appealing for Theresa May to win the Tory leadership and become prime minister. “Businesses, consumers, markets confront a new set of uncertainties - and will continue to do so until the shape of our deal with the EU becomes clear. That means time is of essence.”

Impressions:
“Mr Hammond… has such a sober public image that he is often referred to as an accountant, despite having no accounting qualifications,” read a Financial Times profile last August.

Photo credit: Geoff Caddick, AFP

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David Cameron

At 43, Cameron became the youngest prime minister in 200 years when the Conservative Party won power in coalition in 2010 after a long hiatus on the opposition benches. When the modern, liberal-minded Tory resigned six years later having lost the referendum he had called on Britain’s place in the EU, he became an unusually young retiree.

Cameron’s extraordinary gamble in 2013 to promise an in-out referendum on British EU membership was largely interpreted as a tool to placate disgruntled anti-EU Tory backbenchers. Martin Wolf of The Financial Times would later call the referendum “arguably, the most irresponsible act by a British government in my lifetime”.

When Cameron’s Tories won an unexpected majority in 2015 – with Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration UK Independence Party nevertheless winning an unprecedented four million votes – it fell to Cameron to see his promise through and stump for Europe. Old promises came back to haunt the PM, including a 2010 pledge to reduce migration to Britain into “the tens of thousands” when net migration in 2015 still stood at 336,000. In late 2015 and into 2016, Cameron bargained with his EU counterparts in Brussels for concessions that might appease Eurosceptics back home and win victory for Remain. But in the end, the PM’s efforts fell short and he pledged to step down in an emotional speech shortly after the referendum result was announced, with 52 percent opting for Leave.

Verbatim:
“I believed and I still believe that the fact we hadn’t had a referendum on this issue for 40 years – in spite of the fact that the European Union was changing and changing – was beginning to poison British politics,” Cameron told a US crowd in Indiana in December, six months after the fateful EU vote. “It was certainly poisoning politics in my own party. And I think, more importantly, people were feeling they had been promised a referendum - but people were beginning to get very frustrated about this issue. In the end, we had to decide,” he said, according to remarks reported by The Telegraph. When asked how he was spending his time after Downing Street, the ex-PM joked he was “available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs”.

Impressions:
“A time will come for reflection on the good in Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party and his premiership, on his fundamentally correct vision for a one-nation Tory party in possession of the centre ground,” The Economist wrote on the day after the referendum. “But it will surely be dwarfed by this giant, nation-changing misstep, one guaranteed to scar the country for decades and diminish his place in the history books. He leaves office in ignominy.”

Photo credit: Justin Tallis, AFP

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Nicola Sturgeon

Scotland’s first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), Sturgeon, 46, came to power in Edinburgh after the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence, in which 55 percent voted to keep Scotland in the UK. At the time, EU membership had been touted by No campaigners as one reason to stay, on the argument that an independent Scotland would lose EU membership.

But the Brexit referendum brought the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum closer than previously imagined and shone an international spotlight on Sturgeon and her Europhile nation of five million. Sixty-two percent of Scotland voted Remain, in sharp contrast to Great Britain’s 52 percent Leave vote.

A lawyer-turned-politician, Sturgeon has taken her case in defence of Scotland’s pro-EU interests to Brussels and London alike, lashing out at May’s reluctance to compromise and repeatedly raising the spectre of a new independence vote. "The UK government cannot be allowed to take us out of the EU and the single market, regardless of the impact on our economy, jobs, living standards and our reputation as an open, tolerant country, without Scotland having the ability to choose between that and a different future," she said after May presented her vision for Brexit in January. "With her comments today, the prime minister has only succeeded in making that choice more likely."

Verbatim:
“As things stand, Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU against our will. I regard that as democratically unacceptable,” Sturgeon said in Edinburgh after the referendum. “I think an independence referendum is now highly likely.”

Impressions:
“The approach the first minister has followed since the referendum is one of always spoiling for a fight, trying to get into a confrontation,” David Mundell, the May government’s minister responsible for Scotland, told Bloomberg Television in October. “That’s not the approach we want. We want to make sure that Scotland’s views are fully reflected in the Brexit discussions and they will be,” said Mundell, Scotland’s only Tory MP.

Photo credit: Andy Buchanan, AFP

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Jeremy Corbyn

Opposition leader Corbyn, 67, won the Labour Party leadership in September 2015 in one of the biggest upsets in British political history, a grassroots coup over the party establishment. As party leader, the low-key bearded socialist, vegetarian cyclist, former union organiser and mild Eurosceptic already had an uneasy relationship with Labour MPs after 30 years on the backbenches, but the Brexit vote opened floodgates of criticism.

"Too many of our supporters were taken in by right-wing arguments and I believe this happened, in part, because under your leadership the case to remain in the EU was made with half-hearted ambivalence rather than full-throated clarity," shadow business secretary Angela Eagle wrote in her resignation letter, as she and other shadow cabinet ministers walked out en masse. Corbyn would lose a post-referendum no-confidence vote 172 to 40, but refused to quit and rode his grassroots support to re-election as party chief in September, to the dismay of Labour supporters who fear he is unelectable.

Critics have continued to blast Corbyn’s arguably mild response to May’s Brexit preparations. He suffered a new rebellion in February when 52 Labour MPs broke with their leader’s directive to vote for the bill, including ten members of Corbyn’s own shadow cabinet.

Verbatim:
“Real fight starts now. Over next two years Labour will use every opportunity to ensure Brexit protects jobs, living standards & the economy,” Corbyn tweeted in February 2017, after a government bill to trigger Article 50 passed with his support in parliament.

Impressions:
“How? You’ve just handed the Tories a blank cheque. You didn’t win a single concession but still voted for the Bill. Pathetic,” Nicola Sturgeon tweeted in reply to Corbyn’s “real fight starts now” pledge.

Photo credit: Paul Ellis, AFP

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Nigel Farage

Longtime UK Independence Party leader Farage called Prime Minister David Cameron’s referendum bluff in achieving Brexit, the jocular former commodities trader’s lifelong ambition in politics. Cameron once dismissed UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists", but during the Tory's tenure as PM, Farage's nationalist party thrived. The party’s first MP was elected to the House of Commons in 2014 and UKIP won nearly four million votes in the 2015 general election.

A vindicated Farage stepped down as party leader after the referendum, but remains a member of the European Parliament, where he has served since 1999. The 52-year-old has since made a show of good relations with US President Donald Trump, saying he wants to act as a “bridge” between the UK and the United States. In January 2017, Farage was hired as an analyst by US television network Fox News.

Verbatim:
"When I came here 17 years ago and I said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the EU, you all laughed at me,” Farage told fellow MEPs after the vote. “But you are not laughing now."

Impressions:
“[Farage] has always struck me as a rather engaging geezer. He’s anti-pomposity, he’s anti-political correctness, he’s anti-loony Brussels regulation. He’s in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain. We Tories look at him – with his pint and cigar and sense of humour – and instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us,” Boris Johnson, then London mayor, wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2013.

Photo credit: Ben Stansall, AFP

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Sadiq Khan

A former human rights lawyer and former Labour transport minister, the 46-year-old son of a Pakistani bus driver grew up in public housing in inner-city London and was elected London’s first Muslim mayor shortly before the Brexit vote.

The British capital hosts one million foreign nationals, many in the financial powerhouse known as The City, and 60 percent of London voted Remain. Expectations were high for the Remain campaigner Khan after Leave’s shock win; a full 180,000 signed a petition to the mayor to “Declare London independent from the UK and apply to join the EU.” Khan has said London independence isn’t going to happen, but he has mooted the notion of a London visa, telling the Financial Times “nothing should be off the table”.

And London’s mayor has lobbied hard for a seat at that negotiating table. “Although we will be outside the EU, it is crucial that we remain part of the single market. Leaving the single market of 500 million people -- with its free-trade benefits -- would be a mistake,” Khan said in a statement shortly after the June 23 vote. “I will be pushing the Government to ensure this is the cornerstone of the negotiations with the EU. It is crucial that London has a voice at the table during those renegotiations, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

Verbatim:
“A hardline approach to Brexit may hold the Conservative party together, but it could rip Britain apart,” Khan said after May presented her vision for Brexit in January, according to prepared remarks released before a speech he gave at the World Economic Forum in Davos and reported by The Guardian. “And if we continue on this path – towards a hard Brexit – we risk having to explain to future generations why we knowingly put their economy, their prosperity and their place on the world stage in such peril.”

Impressions:
“[Khan’s] got to secure a place at the table,” London Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Colin Stanbridge told an October 2016 meeting of the London Assembly’s economy committee, according to a Politico report. “He needs to keep fighting for that, and we need to keep backing him to be in there to make sure that London is represented in these negotiations.”

Photo credit: Niklas Halle’n, AFP

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Michel Barnier

Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, leads a team of dozens charged with reaching a deal on the EU/UK split. A conservative former minister of Environment, European Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Agriculture in a string of French governments in the 1990s and 2000s, Barnier has been a mainstay in Brussels ever since, serving as an EU commissioner and later as a special advisor to the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on European defence and security policy.

The 66-year-old has put the loose ends on the table into categories that include the British settling of accounts to the EU for previous commitments made as a member, the legal status of EU expats in the UK, and vice versa, and practical border issues, in particular with regard to trade and along Ireland’s land frontier.

Verbatim:
"The single market and its four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry picking is not an option," Barnier told reporters in December. At the same Brussels press conference, he also hazarded his own paraphrase of a British motto turned cliché: "Keep calm and negotiate."

Impressions:
“There are lots of people who are jumping up and down saying ‘Oh, we’ve got this dangerous Frenchman in here that’s going to undermine London.’ It’s not like that,” Syed Kamall, the pro-Brexit Conservative MEP for London and leader of Theresa May’s Conservatives in the European Parliament, told Reuters. “He’s going to be a reasonable negotiator,” Kamall said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree at the end of the day. But I can think of few other people that I would want on the other side of the negotiating table.”

Photo credit: John Thys, AFP

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Guy Verhofstadt

A former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the European Parliament’s liberal bloc, Verhofstadt was elected chief negotiator for the parliament by a caucus of his party-leader peers. The 63-year-old, who ran for the leadership of the legislature and lost in January, is a Europhile – and self-professed Anglophile -- known for not pulling his punches, often clashing with UKIP Eurosceptic Nigel Farage in the European chamber.

In the wake of Britain’s leave vote, Verhofstadt has stood up for British expatriates caught up in the Brexit shuffle and has been sympathetic to Scotland’s campaign to stay in the EU.

The European Parliament is expected to have a limited role in the nitty-gritty of Brexit negotiations, but the body effectively has a veto on the deal as it will be called on to pass the legislation that finalises the split. Verhofstadt has bristled at the characterisation, notably by UK Brexit secretary David Davis, that the EP’s role would be “peripheral”, saying the legislature would set out its “red lines” quickly after Britain triggers Article 50 to set talks in motion.

Verbatim:
"The Brexit leaders do not seem to have a clue of what needs to be done," Verhofstadt said in July. "They remind me of rats fleeing a sinking ship. Cameron resigned. Johnson abandoned. And Farage? He wants more time for himself to spend his European salary."

Impressions:
"[Verhofstadt] hates everything we stand for, which should mean a much shorter renegotiation," Farage said after the Belgian was named the EP's Brexit negotiator. "Mr. Verhofstadt is a fanatical supporter of EU federalism even by the standards of the European Parliament. This appointment will no doubt speed up the UK's exit from the European Union."

Photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

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Donald Trump

Republican-longshot-turned-leader-of-the-free-world, US President Trump has repeatedly shown his approval and even enthusiasm for Brexit, despite betraying some lack of knowledge about the vote. (In Scotland on June 24, Trump was lambasted for appearing to suggest on Twitter that the Scots, steadfast Remainers, were enthusiastic about Leave's shock win.)

In a January interview with Brexiteer Michael Gove, the then-president-elect buoyed nervous Britons when he suggested he would secure a trade agreement with the UK "very quickly" after Brexit. The Spectator quoted a British cabinet minister saying, "Trump has come along like the tooth fairy – this is one massive, magnificent gift. It's transformative." But observers who note Trump's "America First" ethic and open hostility towards free trade are more circumspect about whether the American president, who polls consistently poorly in Britain, can represent a legitimate commercial lifeline post-Brexit.

Verbatim:
"I said this was going to happen and I think it is a great thing,” Trump told reporters on a visit to his Scottish golf course on the day after the referendum. “Basically, they took back their country.”

Impressions:
"The election of Mr Trump has transformed Brexit from a risky decision into a straightforward disaster," columnist Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times. "The emperor Nero has now taken power in Washington -- and the British are having to smile and clap as he sets fires and reaches for his fiddle."

Photo credit: Saul Loeb, AFP

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