Barnier, battler of British bankers, is Commission’s new Brexit boss

Michel Barnier. [Eu Council/Flickr]

Michel Barnier, the former financial services Commissioner with a testy relationship with the City of London, will lead the Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, the European Commission announced today (27 July).

Frenchman Barnier, was responsible for the wave of financial services regulation that was proposed by the Barroso Commission after the crisis.

His desire to regulate every financial sector and his push to cap bankers’ bonuses led to accusations that he was plotting to weaken London’s status as the EU’s pre-eminent financial hub.

Barnier, a right-wing Les Républicains politician and former foreign affairs minister,  always denied that charge. But the appointment of a federalist with a fractious relationship with the UK will cause concern in Britain.

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After the shock decision to quit the EU on 23 June, Paris and Frankfurt have moved to poach London’s crown as the bloc’s leading financial centre.

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Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “Michel will have access to all Commission resources necessary to perform his tasks. He will report directly to me, and I will invite him to brief regularly the College to keep my team abreast of the negotiations”.

“I am sure that he will live up to this new challenge and help us to develop a new partnership with the United Kingdom after it will have left the European Union.”

Jacques Lafitte of the Avisa investment advisory group said the appointment sent a very clear message of intent to Britain.

“After all these years that the City has demonised Michel Barnier, often unjustly, the Commission could not have sent a firmer message to the English,” Lafitte told AFP.

Barnier will likely face off against hardline Eurosceptic David Davis, the British Conservative MP handed the new post of  Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

Davis worked for Britain’s Foreign Office from 1994 to 1997, with responsibility for negotiations with Europe. His uncompromising style led to him being nicknamed the “charming bastard” by his adversaries in Brussels.

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Article 50

Barnier’s lead civil servant when Internal Market and services Commissioner was Jonathan Faull, who headed up the Commission’s  pre-referendum Brexit taskforce.

His official title is “Chief Negotiator in charge of leading the Commission Taskforce for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union.”

Article 50 is the legal process to take a member state out of the EU. After the 23 June referendum resulted in a vote to quit the bloc, EU chiefs demanded Britain triggered the process “as soon as possible”.

Juncker has vowed that there will be no negotiations over the divorce terms until Britain triggers Article 50.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote, leaving the decision over when to invoke Article 50 to his successor Theresa May.

May has said that “Brexit means Brexit” and added that, if the UK was ready, the clause will be activated at some point in the new year. The negotiation process can last two years once Article 50 is triggered.

A UK government spokesperson said, “We’ve said it’s important that both sides prepare for the negotiations. We look forward to working with representatives from the member states, the Council and the Commission to ensure an orderly departure of the UK from the EU.”

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Candidacy for Commission presidency

Barnier stood against Juncker to be the European People’s Party candidate for Commission president. Juncker made him security advisor to the Commission after he took over the administration.

He has advocated for permanent military integration among member states since taking the post, which was interpreted by some as a call for a European army – an anathema to the Brits.

The 65-year-old former member of the European Parliament was also Commissioner for regional policy from 1999-2004, under Romano Prodi.

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Barnier was succeeded as financial services Commissioner by Jonathan Hill, a Brit. Hill resigned after the Brexit vote, and was replaced by Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis.

The Commission is expected to announce what portfolio Hill’s successor Julian King will be given later.

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Former UK Europe Minister Denis MacShane said, "I worked closely with Michel Barnier when at the FCO and he was EU Commissioner for Regional Affairs and then after he took over as French Foreign Minister following the flamboyant Dominique de Villepin.

He is a man of the mountains and made his name when he helped organised the 1992 Albertville Oylmpics.  He still hasn’t carried out his promise to take me skiing in the French Alps.  He is a moderate centre-right politician who has held a stream of senior French cabinet rank post and twice been an EU Commissioner. He was very helpful to the UK on regional grants and subsidies and believes strongly that an EU minus Britain was not good for Europe.

I would judge him pro-Brit but equally pro-EU.  It makes sense given that Prime Minister May has appointed out-and-out anti-Europeans like David Davis and Liam Fox to represent the UK and a solid pro-EU person should speak for Europe. But Barnier knows that the final decision on anything of importance will be made in Berlin, Paris, and the other national capitals of Europe not by anyone or any group of people in Brussels.

As Internal Market Commissioner after 2010 He pushed forward hard on increasing market access for the City of London to range across Europe.  In that sense he is the French heir of Margaret Thatcher, creator of the Single Market, which Barnier defended against national protectionists. He was falsely accused of imposing the unpopular bonus caps on City fatcats but that decision was decided by the European Parliament and we have seen what happened in Britain as the Brexit vote was in part a protest against the super-rich in London lording themselves over the less well-off in northern England.

Barnier has enormous experience as a national government minister and knows better than anyone that EU negotiations are about national priorities. The UK press, may in its time-honoured fashion, try to demonise him or make him out to be unfriendly to Britain. It will be water off a duck’s bank for Barnier. Indeed, it makes perfect sense for Jean-Claude Juncker to appoint a senior French politician as if he had named someone seen as being an Anglophone, Anglophile there would have been instant suspicions in many EU capitals that the Commission was ready to roll over for London. "


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