He is the son of a Normandy beaches veteran from Glasgow, and grew up watching Top of the Pops and reading the Beano. That makes David McAllister an unusual member of the EU’s Brexit team. The German MEP with Scottish roots even puts milk in his tea and says he would rather have a slice of British white bread than traditional German schwarzbrot.
Appointed the chair of the European parliament’s EU-UK coordination committee in January, McAllister will steer 705 MEPs through the upcoming talks on the future relationship. EU and UK negotiators are examining whether they can talk via video link, after face-to-face meetings in London due to start on Wednesday were abandoned because of coronavirus.
The Brexit job comes after a meteoric rise in German politics, when he became the youngest leader of a German region, as minister-president of Lower Saxony from 2010 to 2013. Long seen as a favourite of Angela Merkel, McAllister was elected to the European parliament in 2014, where he soon landed one of the biggest MEP jobs: chair of the foreign affairs committee.
The role, which he retains, involves having to deal with one of the EU’s most tricky foreign policy problems: reconstructing relations with a former member state after a painful, three-and-half year divorce.
“Brexit is a very sad event and I will always be of the opinion that the UK is in a better position as a member state of the European Union, but I am not sad to do this job,” he told the Guardian.
“I want us to have the best possible relationship with the UK, and the European parliament will play an important role in shaping our future relations. And that is why we should start these negotiations … in a spirit of certainty, goodwill and mutual respect.”
He sounds far less abrasive than Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, who led the European parliament through Brexit divorce talks. Verhofstadt, who became a pantomime villain for British tabloids, called Theresa May “reckless”, Boris Johnson “infantile” and recently said the UK was approaching the talks as if the two sides were “living on two different planets”.
His successor says he does not want to become a public figure in the UK debate.
That means he will not make any comment on whether an independent Scotland could one day rejoin the EU. The MEP, who got married in a kilt and enjoys drinking sugar-free Irn-Bru, would only say that Scottish independence was “an inner British issue” for Edinburgh and London.
He also advises the 447 million-consumer trading bloc to tread carefully when negotiating with its smaller neighbour: “The EU always is well-advised to treat negotiating partners with respect no matter which size they are.”
He rejects simple labels for the deal, whether Canada-plus or EU- , saying the future agreement will be unprecedented in its depth and breadth. “What we need is a unique agreement with the UK, but there is no country which will match 100% the demands of the British. So what we are going for is a cooperation agreement, which will of course have an important part on trade, but it’s more than trade. There are many other issues.”
Last month, the European parliament endorsed a resolution, drafted by his committee, calling on EU negotiators to keep the UK in line with the bloc’s standards on environment, workers’ rights and industrial state subsidies, in exchange for maintaining free trade in goods. The MEPs approved the maximalist position of “dynamic alignment”, meaning the UK would have to match the EU’s rising standards in these areas. However, other parts of the text suggested the parliament could accept a less demanding agreement not to retreat from existing standards (non-regression). The ambiguity is a sign of a compromise text stitched together to meet the expectations of MEPs spanning conservative right to radical left.
The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, recently suggested the EU would complain if the UK demanded alignment with British standards, but this argument does not cut much ice with McAllister. “In the end it’s a sovereign UK decision,” he said. “The more the UK is ready to follow our respected high standards on labour, social, environmental standards … the more and better access it will have to the world’s largest single market.”
McAllister was born in West Berlin in 1971. It was “a British upbringing on German territory” while attending a British primary school. As a child he was conscious of living in the most eastern outpost of the west. “Many people who grew up in West Berlin have a very strong desire for the democracy and the rule of law.”
When his family moved to a West German spa town when he was 11, he switched to a German school. In 1989, he did two years’ national military service in a tank battalion, when he also learned to drive a lorry while training in the Canadian prairies of Manitoba.
During his teenage years he became a member of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union party. Several decades on, he remains a loyal supporter of the outgoing German chancellor. “I am in favour of Angela Merkel’s announcement that she wants to finish this term. This is not only about Germany, this is about Europe and we need Angela Merkel’s experience and her negotiating skills,” he said, dismissing suggestions the party was tired.
He is convinced that Europe needs more foreign policy clout in the world. “We should really show ambition in the next few years to make the European Union a global player. Because at the moment we are a global payer,” he said, a reference to the EU’s aid budget, the largest in the world. In this, he is aligned with the “geopolitical” ambition of the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, another CDU politician from Lower Saxony.
Can the EU’s geopolitical hopes thrive without one of the continent’s biggest military and diplomatic players?
“We have to, we can’t revoke the UK decision. Of course with the UK the European Union is stronger than without. That’s common sense. Let’s try in the field of foreign and security policy to continue this close foreign and security co-operation.”
That might sound promising to Downing Street, although he is unconvinced of Frost’s view that Britain’s exit could be good for the UK and Europe: “There is nothing good about Brexit.”