Monsieur Brexit: ‘no friend of London’ but likes Ireland

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier gave his first press conference this week

Colleagues say Barnier is far from the arch-federalist bureaucrat that enemies portray. Photograph: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Colleagues say Barnier is far from the arch-federalist bureaucrat that enemies portray. Photograph: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

 

In 2010 the Daily Telegraph ran a story about France’s European Union commissioner at the time. It didn’t pull any punches, its headline asking, “Michel Barnier: the most dangerous man in Europe?”

This week in Brussels the impeccably dressed 65-year-old gave his first press conference since his appointment as the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator. He didn’t exactly cut the figure of a traditional pantomime villain. Instead the former French foreign minister calmly outlined, in French and English, the EU’s negotiating strategy as the institution approaches arguably the biggest challenge in its history.

Brexit – shorthand for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, after 43 years, and the gargantuan task of now extricating the country from decades of EU laws, trade agreements and intertwined policies – is fast approaching.

The UK is expected to launch formal exit talks in just over three months, when it triggers article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism that allows countries to leave the bloc. That sets the clock ticking on a two-year renewable time frame, although London will almost certainly seek a transitional deal, to bridge the gap between leaving the European Union and negotiating a new agreement as a non-EU member, a process that could take many years.

Some officials in Brussels have even suggested that the UK might never invoke article 50, given the overwhelming complexities involved, opting instead to simply unilaterally exit the bloc.

Since assuming the position of chief Brexit negotiator, on October 1st, Barnier has been busy. But what has he been up to? And who is the man who will lead the European Commission’s Brexit task force?

Winter Olympics

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He spearheaded the successful bid to host the Winter Olympics of 1992 in the Savoie town of Albertville. The experience showed his ability to get things done, and his commitment to local politics set him apart from many French politicians of the time, who honed their skills and developed their political contacts in the upper echelons of the grandes écoles of Paris.

Barnier, who himself graduated from the European Business School in Paris in the 1970s, swiftly rose through the party ranks, serving as minister for the environment, a minister for European affairs, minister for foreign affairs, and minister for agriculture.

His links with European politics ran deep. Between 1999 and 2004 he was EU commissioner for regional policy, under Romano Prodi, and in 2009 he became an MEP, although he resigned a year later, when he was appointed French commissioner for a second time.

Barnier really made his name on the EU stage during his five-year term as commissioner for internal market and services. Replacing Ireland’s commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, Barnier made a sharp break with his predecessor’s laissez-faire approach to financial-services regulation, instead initiating a series of reforms.

In many ways he was a product of his time, as the fallout from the global financial crisis prompted a public call for tougher curbs and more stringent oversight of the financial system. But his initiation of more than 40 laws toughening up financial regulation solidified his reputation as a man who embodied a typically French socialist approach to regulation and business, despite his being a centre-right politician.

His work during this time brought him directly in contact with the United Kingdom. As the man responsible for regulating the European financial sector, he frequently crossed swords with London, the engine of Europe’s financial industry. In particular, a proposal to cap bank bonuses – demanded by the European Parliament – put him at odds with the City of London, ultimately leading the UK to bring, unsuccessfully, a case to the European Court of Justice.

So it was that, with memories still fresh of Barnier’s tough stance on the UK financial services industry, Jean-Claude Juncker – the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive organ – announced Barnier’s appointment to lead the Brexit team.

Act of aggression

The UK’s reaction was immediate. An outraged eurosceptic press denounced his appointment as an act of aggression by Juncker. Even pro-Europeans such as Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrats leader, said Barnier was “no friend of the City of London”.

But insiders say that characterisation is misleading. Officials who have worked with him describe him as shrewd but politically astute, someone who understands the political demands that different member states face. Colleagues say he is far from the arch-federalist bureaucrat that enemies portray. He has even shown flashes of humour since assuming the role. A recent Twitter post showed a photograph of him outside the Museum of Broken Relationships, in Croatia, after Brexit discussions. “No pun intended,” he tweeted.

Fans of Barnier believe an experienced hand is what the commission needs if it is to prevent the large member states from dictating the terms of Brexit.

Juncker’s establishment of a task force and appointment of Barnier are part of a bigger institutional battle over which European body will control the Brexit process.

Although the 27 other member states and their prime ministers will ultimately set the political direction of talks with the United Kingdom, through the European Council and its leader, Donald Tusk, some smaller member states fear this could lead to the bigger countries having their way.

Fair to

everyone Barnier’s appointment is one of several signs

that the commission will play a bigger role than had been expected and ensure that the deal complies with EU law and is fair to everyone.

And early indications are that Barnier’s appointment is good news for Ireland. That the first question he took at his inaugural press conference this week was about Northern Ireland points to a willingness to deal with the issue. Recalling his work on the EU’s peace programme for Northern Ireland while commissioner for for regional policy, he said he would do his utmost to preserve the Belfast Agreement, and officials expect him to address the Northern Ireland and common-travel-area question early in the negotiations.

Barnier also has good personal links with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, particularly through their membership of the European People’s Party, the European political grouping to which both Fine Gael and the UMP are affiliated. Kenny and Barnier were vice-presidents of the grouping at the same time, and Noonan worked closely with Barnier on financial issues during Ireland’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2013.

Ensuring that Ireland’s voice is heard around the EU table as Brexit negotiations begin will be vital if Ireland’s unique relationship with the UK is to be reflected in the final deal. Having Barnier onside is an important first step as the Republic faces one of its biggest political and diplomatic challenges in decades.

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