U.K. to Face Old Foe as EU Makes Barnier Brexit Talks Chief

  • Michel Barnier takes up role as chief negotiator in October
  • Former commissioner frequently clashed with U.K. on bank laws

Michel Barnier.

Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

The architect of some of the European Union’s most controversial financial regulation will lead negotiations with the U.K. over its exit from the bloc.

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Michel Barnier, a Frenchman who frequently traded blows with the U.K. during his time as head of banking legislation from 2010-2014, will head a team of negotiators who will thrash out the terms of Britain’s split from the EU and start to shape the two sides’ future relationship.

“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday in a statement after making the appointment.

Some in the U.K. may consider Barnier’s selection to be a provocative move, or a sign that Juncker wants to reduce the influence of the City of London as part of the Brexit process. During Barnier’s time as European commissioner, the British government clashed repeatedly with the EU over issues from a cap on bankers’ bonuses to the location of clearinghouses.

He frequently had to rebuff U.K. claims that his policies were hurting London’s financial-services industry and causing a shift of business to centers in the euro area. Although the bonus cap was one of the most high-profile measures to come into force during his time in office, Barnier had favored a less radical move.

At the same time, he issued warnings that Britain had to accept EU financial regulations in exchange for access to the bloc’s single market.

His appointment is “very dispiriting news for the U.K.,” said David Buik, a market commentator at Panmure Gordon in London. “He has been very, very difficult to deal with over all financial regulation and particularly unsympathetic with the U.K. in the banking arena.”

Barnier will take up the role on Oct. 1 and is likely to go head-to-head with the U.K.’s Brexit minister, David Davis, once the British government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will fire the starting gun on two years of wrangling. They have encountered each other before as their countries’ European affairs ministers in the mid-1990s.


Adding an extra complexity, Barnier, a former agriculture minister in the French government, is also reluctant to speak English in public.

To some, Barnier’s appointment is an acknowledgment that the EU needs a pragmatic negotiator who understands British sensitivities and interests.

He’s “pro-Brit” and an “Anglophile,” Denis MacShane, another former U.K. Europe minister, said in a post on Twitter.

Barnier always denied that he was prejudiced against the U.K. or its liberal financial industry. By the time his period in office ended, he had won plaudits for his even-handed approach.

“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 September 2014.

Power Struggle

Appointing Barnier is also Juncker’s opening move in a struggle for power on the Brussels side of the negotiations. While the European Commission will be asked to carry out much of the technical work, it’s for national leaders to set the parameters of the discussions.

The European Council, which represents the EU’s 28 nations, has already appointed Belgian bureaucrat Didier Seeuws, aide to former EU President Herman Van Rompuy, as its lead Brexit negotiator, and the divisions of responsibility are still to be worked out.

“We’ve said it’s important that both sides prepare for the negotiations,” a British government spokeswoman said. “We look forward to working with representatives from the member states, the Council and the Commission to ensure an orderly departure of the U.K. from the EU.”

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