5th Feb 2023

Barnier sets out stall as a 'reformer'

In one of the most keenly anticipated European Parliamentary hearings, Michel Barnier put in an assured performance on Wednesday evening (13 January) that had several MEPs calling him commissioner rather than commissioner-designate by the end of the session.

The French centre-right nominee for the internal market post, and currently a European deputy himself, appeared to have judged the mood of his interviewers well, with repeated references to a 'social agenda' to protect citizens drawing solid applause.

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  • Mr Barnier said he would not shy away from dealing with derivatives and short-selling (Photo: European Parliament)

On financial services he quoted the classical liberal economist Adam Smith, noting that even he had said: "The markets cannot work without rules, and they cannot work without ethics."

At the same time, Mr Barnier was quick to emphasise his intention to drive ahead with the completion of Europe's currently fragmented internal market. "To me it all goes together, development of the internal market and social progress," he insisted.

Amongst other measures to achieve this, the former foreign minister said he will push for full member-state implementation of the services directive and final completion of a European patent system, still being held up by linguistic concerns despite considerable progress made last month.

"This is something that is really dreadful considering how long it has gone on," Mr Barnier said. "I will propose a regulation very soon on the linguistic issue and will work to win over resistant member states."

Financial services

Mr Barnier's nomination in November was followed by a media storm that saw some UK voices express concern that the Frenchman would usher in a new era of excessive financial regulation that could strangle the City of London.

"Let's not pretend we are not going to reform. We are going to reform," he told MEPs, adding that he aimed to put "transparency, responsibility and ethics at the heart of financial system" and would not shy away from the difficult questions posed derivatives and short-selling.

Mr Barnier expressed his particular concern over agricultural derivatives, saying they were an important contributor to world food shortages, and also indicating he was open to a tax on financial transactions.

"I would personally be in favour of using a tax on [financial] flows to address environmental issues around the world," he said.

The experienced politician also sought to allay fears over his independence following controversial remarks by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the UK would be the "big loser" following his appointment.

"I won't take orders from Paris, London or anywhere else," he said, denying that he had been forced to take on a British director-general to ease UK concerns.

Questioned on the potential downsides of the commission's recent draft hedge fund's directive, Mr Barnier said he was willing to revisit and improve on all legislation, time permitting. "I am committed to a qualitative review of all our legislative texts," he said.

Roaming commissioner

In a nod to his former days as a European commissioner for regional policy, Mr Barnier indicated he would travel the length and breadth of the European Union, and further afield, in a bid to ensure rules were working and alliances were being formed.

The nominee said he would spend considerable time on international dialogue, singling out China as well as the US, to ensure new European rules on financial supervision were complemented in other countries.

On completing the EU's internal market, he cited his intention to do a lot of "work on the ground to win over people," and expressed his desire to see for himself the effects of EU rules. "Once a week, I will go to one of the member states, and not just to the capitals," he said.

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