Meet The EU's New Chief Brexit Negotiator
A British newspaper once asked if Michel Barnier was "the most dangerous man in Europe".
The European Commission has just appointed Michel Barnier as "Chief Negotiator in charge of the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union".
In other words, Barnier will be the commission’s chief Brexit negotiator.
The role matters because the UK will not negotiate the terms of leaving the EU directly with the EU's remaining 27 member states. Europe’s governments will meet among themselves – without the UK in the room – and set their terms. Technical negotiations are then likely to be between the British government and the European Commission acting on the basis of EU governments’ mandate. There is, however, a bit of a turf war going on between the commission and the European Council (which also recently appointed a Brexit negotiator of its own) over who leads the talks.
Barnier is French. Some have not taken kindly to this fact.
Barnier is a centre-right politician.
But France’s socialist president, François Hollande, is probably OK with the appointment. He met with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker two days ago and, it is safe to assume, the issue is likely to have come up over dinner.
Between 2010 and 2014, Barnier was the EU commissioner in charge of Europe's internal market and financial services. At the time of his appointment, one British newspaper asked if he was the most dangerous man in Europe.
It is fair to say in that role he didn’t always get on with the City of London. In 2011, the Financial Times published a piece titled “Barnier vs the Brits.”
His proposals – ranging from reforms to market regulations and capital rules to the introduction of measures to take on bankers’ dodging bonus caps, and the suggestion of a financial transactions tax – were not all always well received in Britain.
At a meeting between the then Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King and Barnier, King, “not known as a man given to shouting”, “let fly”, according to the FT's account of events.
On the tense relationship between Paris and London at the time, David Cameron said: “The French wouldn’t have us trying to move their aerospace industry to Poland, so I’m not having them trying to move our financial services industry to Frankfurt – forget it.”
However, Barnier is a pragmatist who once described himself as a "mediator".
In 2012, he made clear that he was against any discrimination between eurozone countries and non-eurozone countries. He also said he agreed with Cameron on the need to expand the single market in areas such as energy and the digital economy. Over the course of some 40 initiatives, and a banking union later, relations with Britain, and the City, improved.
Those who actually know Barnier do not think his appointment is an "act of war".
In 2010, the Conservative MEP Syed Kamall said this of Barnier: "He is first and foremost a very pragmatic politician, a dealmaker. He is more European than French...I find him very straight and amiable. You can sit down with him and sort things out. He answers questions and deals with issues."
However, throughout, Barnier has remained a champion of the single market.
In a 2013 speech at London’s Guildhall he said that the UK and Europe were stronger together, and implored the British public to view the EU as a “joint project” rather than just a “network” of convenience.
“Europeans also have to realise that it is more than just a matter of individual interest and return on investment... without solidarity there will be no true single market," he told a City audience.
When Barnier left the post in 2014, he told the FT “the criticisms I faced then were unjust, unfair, not linked to what I did but where I came from".
His successor in the financial services portfolio was Lord Hill. Barnier had these words of advice for his colleagues: “Don’t judge Lord Hill because he is British, judge him on what he says. I trust him to be objective and competent.”
Barnier's long CV includes posts as French minister of foreign affairs, minister of agriculture and fisheries, and minister of European affairs. In the last role, he overlapped in the mid-1990s with the current UK Brexit minister David Davis, which means a reunion of sorts is now on the cards.
In France, Barnier is viewed as a centrist, and is well respected across party lines. Two years ago he was defeated by Juncker in the race to become the European People's Party candidate for the European Commission presidency.