Sabine Weyand: ‘The EU found out that we are dependent on Russia. We can’t afford that’

Europe’s director-general of trade has discovered that assertiveness pays — and that economic ties can mask vulnerabilities

No one loves free trade anymore, the great powers have embraced protection, the EU can achieve little. So goes the narrative. But in her seventh-floor office in Brussels, the jovial Sabine Weyand tries not to take it too seriously.

“Trade and investment ties are holding up. Capital flows are continuing. I don’t really think that you can say that there is an age of deglobalisation. We live through a reconfiguration of globalisation,” says the director-general of the EU’s trade department.

Yes, Covid-19 led to a search for resilient supply chains. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “has really put the wind in the sails” of Brussels’s plans for trade deals.

The EU’s official buildings look and feel like black holes for personality. Weyand has avoided being swallowed whole. After nearly 30 years in the European Commission, she is recognisable not just by her black glasses and bob, but by her blunt phrasing and willingness to make a joke. As the EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator, she was known as the brains behind Michel Barnier.

She rejected British proposals for the Northern Irish border as “unicorns”, earning the scorn of Brexiters. “It’s unusual for an official to have so much public visibility: I didn’t like that so much.”  That is the irony: Brexit was partly a revolt against the European bureaucrats; Brussels bureaucrats like Weyand ensured it achieved much less than its proponents wanted.

The other irony is that Weyand is an Anglophile, who studied at Cambridge from 1986-87 and whose free-trading outlook is in line with the UK’s historic instincts.

She concedes that Brexit “has made integration easier” for the EU on security and justice and home affairs, but adds: “On trade, we are missing a liberal voice, which we had at the table. It has taken the EU a while to find a new equilibrium here, but I think we are there now.”

That new equilibrium is a major shift. Under French influence, the EU decided that nice guys finish last and that assertiveness pays. The commission has responded to Donald Trump, Chinese subsidies, and sustainability concerns by developing new defensive powers, including a carbon tax on imports.

The trade directorate has dragged its feet on the most expansive proposals. But Weyand insists the direction is right: “We need partners more than ever, but we have to [engage] on the basis of strength.” 

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