Why Britain is unenthusiastic about Michel Barnier’s Brexit job
Posted by hkarner - 30. Juli 2016
Source: The Economist
IT WAS a “declaration of war”, according to the livelier elements of the British press. Michel Barnier, the smooth-talking, silver-haired French politician who has been appointed to run a Brexit task force inside the European Commission, may not look like a man spoiling for a battle. But the decision by Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission’s president—to appoint a man well known for his rows with Britain to a job which is bound to generate more of them—certainly looked like a provocation.
Mr Barnier has the experience for the job. He has bounced between senior positions in Paris and Brussels for more than 20 years, serving (briefly) as France’s foreign minister and putting in two stints inside the commission. It is the second of those that has some in Britain sweating. Between 2010 and 2014 Mr Barnier was the internal-markets commissioner, a job in which he oversaw the regulation of financial services. In those post-Lehman days, a torrent of legislation poured forth from Brussels, and Mr Barnier clashed regularly with the City (and the British government) on issues like bankers’ bonuses and capital-buffer requirements. One row with Mervyn King left the mild-mannered Bank of England governor bashing the table in fury. But by the end of Mr Barnier’s term he had won the grudging respect of many in the City who appreciated his conciliatory approach to the job. There are other ways to interpret the appointment. A classic Brussels turf war is brewing over the way the Brexit talks will be handled. Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, which lays out the withdrawal procedure, states that the European Council (the EU’s heads of government) will provide the “guidelines” for negotiations with a departing state. But most people expect the commission, which houses vast technical expertise, to play a central role. The council has already appointed Didier Seeuws, a seasoned Belgian diplomat, as its point man on Brexit. Mr Juncker’s decision to name Mr Barnier, who will have little to do until the Article 50 talks get under way next year, may be seen as the commission’s answering back. Either way, Mr Barnier’s views will count for relatively little next to those of EU leaders like Angela Merkel or (so long as he survives in office) François Hollande.
There are grounds for optimism over his appointment, however. Mr Barnier knows Britain well, thanks to his previous job. He may not be known for an obsession with detail, but his background in financial services will be useful in negotiations over British banks’ access to the EU single market, a crucial part of the talks to come. He has a reputation as a pragmatist who understands the value of compromise over conflict. And contrary to some reports, his English is perfectly adequate. Number 10 can probably call off the troops.