The European Commission has appointed ex-French government minister Michel Barnier as the chief negotiator for Brexit, Independentreports. The announcement was made on Wednesday (July 27) by the president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Also the former vice-president of the Commission, Barnier was described by Juncker as “a skilled negotiator with rich experience in major policy areas relevant to the negotiations.” Speaking at the final meeting of the commission before the summer break, Juncker also announced that the 65-year old French man will not start negotiations until Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is officially activated.
He was spoken highly of by Juncker at the announcement. He said, “I am very glad that my friend Michel Barnier accepted this important and challenging task. I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job.
“He has an extensive network of contacts in the capitals of all EU member states and in the European Parliament, which I consider a valuable asset for this function.
“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 [of commissioners] 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.”
Meanwhile, the UK government has reacted frostily to the news, though not mentioning the Frenchman by name. Its reaction is down to the interventionist approaches employed by Barnier, such as putting a cap on bankers’ bonuses, during his time from 2010-2014 as the head of banking legislation, earning his name as the Scourge of the City of London.
The appointment is seen by some as a measure by Juncker to curtail London’s influence in Brexit, according to Bloomberg. “I’m looking at this with an open mind,” Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday at a news conference in Rome. But some City financiers were far more skeptic. One chairman said, “My initial reaction was ‘Oh, God.’ It’s clearly provocative.”
Quoting David Buik, a market commentator in London, Bloomberg likewise reports that the Frenchman “has been very, very difficult to deal with over all financial regulation and particularly unsympathetic with the UK in the banking arena.”
“It’s incredibly provocative. This is Juncker’s revenge on Britain,” said a top banker with experience in Brussels to Financial Times, echoing the dispiriting sentiment over the appointment.
Some in the British media were also scathing in their response to the announcement. Tom Dunn, The Sun‘s political editor, tweeted that it was “hard to think of a more anti-British figure.” Adding to the criticism, Tom Shipman of The Sunday Times tweeted that “appointing Michel Barnier, one of the least popular ex commissioners in London, as point man for Brexit is an act of war by Juncker.”
Barnier has had to repeatedly deny the claims of prejudice against Britain. “I suffered a lot from this prejudging because I was French, I was Gaullist. I asked to be judged on my acts and on my attitude,” Barnier said in an interview in 2014. By the end of his tenure in that year though, he had won few, if any, friends in London. Nick Clegg, the then deputy prime minister of UK, said that “alarm bells will be ringing” following the decision.
Barnier, who will not start his work until October 1, expressed his delight over his appointment in Twitter.
The division of labor between Michel Barnier and the Belgian bureaucrat Didier Seeuws, already chosen by the European Council as its lead Brexit negotiator, is still unclear. No matter his role though, many in the UK feel provoked by Barnier’s appointment. Only time will tell if this frosty relationship thaws.
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