Michel Barnier set to extend his role as EU Brexit negotiator

New Commission president to prolong Frenchman’s role with Phil Hogan to the fore in post-Brexit negotiaitons

Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, said that Mr Barnier had done “an outstanding job. Photograph: Stephanie LeCocq/EPA

Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, said that Mr Barnier had done “an outstanding job. Photograph: Stephanie LeCocq/EPA

 

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator and a key architect of a contentious plan to avoid the return to a hard Irish border, is set to stay on in his role.

Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, said that Mr Barnier had done “an outstanding job” since his appointment in July 2016, and that she would hold talks with him on prolonging his current position beyond October 31st.

Unveiling her 27-strong team of commissioners that are due to take office on November 1st, Ms von der Leyen handed the powerful trade portfolio to Ireland’s Phil Hogan, meaning he will play a leading role in post-Brexit negotiations with the UK on its long-term relationship with the EU.

“Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it is the beginning of the future relationship,” said Germany’s former defence minister, adding that “we are still in a difficult process”.

Ms von der Leyen, who was chosen by EU leaders in July to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the bloc’s executive arm, said Brussels needed Mr Barnier’s expertise, amid growing expectations that Britain will request a delay to Brexit beyond the scheduled date of October 31st.

Mr Barnier’s job was created by Mr Juncker, who wanted to make sure Brussels played a central role in the Brexit negotiations, but the Frenchman has since built a solid bedrock of support from national governments and the European Parliament.

As head of the commission’s task force on Brexit, Mr Barnier has led negotiations opposite several different British ministers, thrashing out deals on everything from the UK’s £39 billion divorce bill to a so-called backstop plan for preventing a hard Irish border after Britain leaves the EU.

He played a leading role in devising the backstop, which he has insisted is the only legally watertight way that has been found to prevent border checks while protecting the EU’s single market.

The backstop is contained in the withdrawal agreement reached between Britain and the EU last year, and would avoid a hard border by creating a customs union between the UK and the bloc.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed that the UK must leave the EU on October 31st, with or without a deal. He has said the backstop must be removed, saying it is “undemocratic” by potentially locking Britain into a customs union with the bloc in perpetuity.

But British MPs’ resistance to a no-deal Brexit, and the practical reality about how long it would take to approve any revised withdrawal agreement, mean that a delay beyond October 31 is becoming ever more likely.

The “next steps are completely in the hands [of the UK]”, said Ms Von der Leyen. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019