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19th Sep 2018

Magazine

Michel Barnier: The UK's best friend in Brussels

  • Michel Barnier – the atypical Frenchman.

His urbane style hides a methodological negotiator. His political sensitivity has earned him praise from all corners of Europe. EU sources commend his handling of the Brexit talks, with almost no criticism or reservations, except that he is French. Yet, he is a very atypical French politician. Michel Barnier is the best friend the UK has in Brussels today.

The EU's top negotiator is no stranger in the European Commission's Berlaymont headquarter.

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  • Barnier (l) and EU commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker (r) at the start of the October EU summit. (Photo: European Commission)

Barnier – the 66-year-old former French foreign minister – served as the EU executive's commissioner for regional policy between 1999 and 2004, and as commissioner for the internal market between 2010 and 2014.

He oversaw the financial sector's reform in the wake of the financial crisis, including setting up the banking union - a key piece of legislation in reinforcing the bloc's immune system against financial shocks.

He persuaded Britain to accept most of the new EU financial regulations, and made an effort not to alienate London's financial hub, although he did clash with the city of London over a proposed cap on bank bonuses.

The mountain-dweller, Barnier, was raised in the Alpine region of Savoie. He did not attend the prestigious Parisian Ecole National D'Administration (ENA), which traditionally educates France's leading political class, but went to a business school.

Barnier likes to say his first vote was in a 1972 French referendum to allow the UK into the bloc.

His rise in Gaullist politics was a quick one, being elected in 1978 - at the age of 27 - to the French National Assembly. In 1992 he helped bring the Winter Olympics to his beloved native Savoy Alps.

His career did, however, receive a blow from French voters in 2005, when they rejected the EU constitution on which he worked. He lost his job as foreign minister, calling the results a "real disappointment".

He later ran for the president of the European Commission.

But at a European People's Party congress in Dublin in 2014, Barnier was outvoted by rival Jean-Claude Juncker, who became the party's official candidate for Commission president, after the Luxembourgish politician received strong backing from German chancellor Angela Merkel, while Barnier lacked the support from France's socialist president, Francois Hollande.

Barnier's appointment as the EU's Brexit point man in the summer of 2016 was met with disbelief in London. It seemed like a classic provocation from Juncker, but it also appears to be working – at least for the EU.

"Barnier turned out to be the man of the situation, no sleight of hand, he is methodical and determined," MEP Jerome Lavrilleux from Barnier's Republicans party said, adding "he is not arrogant, he listens to people, and respects what they tell him."

"He can be described by firmness, diplomacy, efficiency. All the more well perceived because it is not what one expects from a Frenchman," Lavrilleux added.

Barnier exposed a lighter, witty side of his character by telling British prime minister Theresa May to "keep calm and negotiate" – referring to the popular phrase from the second world war: "Keep Calm and Carry On".

Visiting Croatia, he tweeted from the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, asking "Guess where we are today?".

He attempted to calm British fears by emphasising at press conferences and in speeches that the financial settlement is not a punishment for Britain for leaving the bloc, but settling the existing accounts.

Iztok Mirosic, Slovenia's state secretary for EU affairs pointed out that it is better to have a politician as chief negotiator, than a bureaucrat.

"There is a general need of political judgement, these are not technical negotiations. Political experience is very important," Mirosic said when asked about Barnier.

Barnier has travelled to all the member states to hear their priorities in Brexit talks, and is regularly updating the EU countries, commissioners and MEPs.

He has been known to gently push for a softer approach among the 27 EU countries to reach an agreement with the UK, trying to tone down the somewhat less flexible positions of Germany and France.

"He has done a great job so far, and he has managed to keep the EP [European Parliament] under control, which means he has great political skills," said an EU source, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of Brexit talks.

"He would have a very good chance of becoming European Commission president, if he wanted to," the source added.

That's the big question for Barnier, and another reason why the French politician is the UK's best bet to push for a deal within the EU institutions.

Barnier, in a speech in Rome in November, ventured out of his usual rhetorical Brexit territory. At the end of his speech he outlined how EU unity should be reinforced and "what needs to change in Brussels".

Could he be testing the waters for a possible campaign in 2019?

There is a historic Brexit deal to be done first.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to access EUobserver's entire magazine collection.

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