Michel Barnier: an energetic supporter of Ireland in Brexit woes

Skilled European negotiator who insists on backstop Border provision set to visit Ireland

European Union negotiator Michel Barnier visiting to the EU subway station in Sofia: talks of the Belfast Agreement as a European agreement. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

European Union negotiator Michel Barnier visiting to the EU subway station in Sofia: talks of the Belfast Agreement as a European agreement. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

 

When Michel Barnier visits Derry on Wednesday as part of his tour of Ireland, the city will just have celebrated the launch of a new four-year project funded by the EU’s Peace IV programme.

It is an apt reminder that the EU’s chief brexit negotiator has been here before. As commissioner for regional policy from 1999 to 2004, in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Barnier was responsible for the EU Peace programmes in Northern Ireland, crucial underpinnings of the agreement. He signed off on hundreds of millions of euro of EU support for both the Derry region and the North.

Barnier has often spoken emotionally of how important that work was to him and how it informs his engagement with and commitment to Irish issues in the Brexit talks.

A sprightly and fit 67, Barnier, who has been described as austere, has been engaged in politics at national level and then Brussels for 40 years, and shows no sign of tiring

He and his team also talk of the Belfast Agreement as a European agreement – safeguarding its provisions through the Brexit talks is as much about ensuring that the UK honours its undertakings to the EU as to the citizens of the North.

He has been completely unambiguous in his warnings to the UK that agreement on a backstop Border provision is a precondition for the much broader Withdrawal Agreement and its provisions on transition. And soon.

Rural upbringing

A sprightly and fit 67, Barnier, who has been described as austere, has been engaged in politics at national level and then Brussels for 40 years, and shows no sign of tiring. He is proud of his rural upbringing in the mountainous Savoie region and revels in hiking there. He was elected to represent it at 27, then the youngest politician in the National Assembly.

He has served as EU commissioner twice – as regional commissioner, and from 2010 to 2014 as internal market commissioner – before being drafted in as a “safe pair of hands” by commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to head the task force on Brexit.

That need to communicate with so many parties has facilitated a mantra of 'transparency' about the talks process

He now aspires, it is reported, to succeed Juncker as president next year. If, that is, he can get the support of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, although the latter is no supporter of the Gaullist tradition in French politics to which Barnier belongs.

Evolving mandate

He might have more chance to get a nomination as the European People’s Party candidate from party colleague Leo Varadkar.

His skill in leading the Brexit process has been in marshalling the many constituencies to which he reports , some almost daily, to maintain a remarkable unanimity over his evolving mandate. That need to communicate with so many parties has facilitated a mantra of “transparency” about the talks process – with so many in the loop, they might as well engage regularly and in detail with the press. (Except, it should be noted on the Irish strand).

The task force is involved in a constant detailed dialogue with Irish diplomats, and reports on an almost weekly basis to the Brexit group of member states, and it to ambassadors. He reports to the commission and meets the European Parliament’s team under his old friend Guy Verhofstadt almost as regularly. Visiting delegations find his team’s door always open.