Michel Barnier will return to Brussels on 1 October to take up his new position as the EU’s “negotiator-in-chief” with the United Kingdom. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.
Nicknamed the “scourge of the City” by the British press, which likes to paint him as an anti-British francophone, Barnier’s appointment by Brussels has raised more than a few eyebrows across the Channel.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s decision to bring back the former European Commissioner for financial services risks stirring up resentment in the UK. After all, why would Barnier worry about what the Brits think now? But it has also armed the executive with an eminently capable politician who can hold his own with heads of state and government and place the European Commission at the centre of the coming negotiations between London and the EU 27.
To accomplish his new mission, the French politician will lean surely on the same tactics that earned him cross-party recognition as the “big bad regulator” of finance during his last stint in the Berlaymont, in the Barroso 2 Commission.
Simple slogans – like “the banks should pay for the banks” – and tenacity in the face of strong lobbying proved just as effective as grand theories. But while the G20’s agenda and a long list of regulations to implement provided a framework for his actions as Commissioner, this time he is off the map.
Brexit could drown the EU
The “reverse accession” of a country is a completely new adventure and a blank page in the hisroty of the European Union.
To keep the EU’s head above water, Barnier will have to speak not only with Theresa May (in English), but also reconcile the positions of Viktor Orbán and Matteo Renzi, build bridges between the future French and German leaders, prevent the erosion of the single market rules, rescue the chances of the future European army, which is unthinkable without the United Kingdom, hold the eurozone together…
From this point of view, Barnier’s pragmatism will be an asset to President Juncker. Asserting both a pro-European and a Gaullist ideology, Barnier has never been close to federalists like Guy Verhofstadt or Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He even chose to support Bruno Lemaire for the French Republican party primary, despite the candidate’s calls for a referendum on EU membership.
His credo that European countries are better off together leaves many options open for the up-coming negotiations, including the “continental partnership” suggested by Jean Pisani-Ferry, the director of the government’s pro-European think-tank France Stratégie, and Norbert Röttgenn a German MP close to Angela Merkel. This “light”, but structured, participation in Europe’s institutions and policies would be reserved for countries that do not share the federal ambitions of the eurozone.
Even before the negotiations have begun, one thing is clear: political instinct will not be enough to bring this episode to a happy conclusion. The EU will need to show a good deal of imagination.