Michel Barnier: The EU's point man on Brexit negotiations

Katya Adler
Europe editor
@BBCkatyaadleron Twitter

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The veteran diplomat is widely respected, but many have suspicions about him too

Many and bitter have been the criticisms levelled at the British prime minister and members of her cabinet when it comes to their handling of Brexit, so what about the other side: Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator and his colleagues - what's the dirt on them?

When Mr Barnier was initially named for the role there was a sharp intake of breath in London. His time as EU commissioner for the single market (from 2010 to 2014) included a clash with the City of London over bankers' bonuses - earning him the remarkable British label: "the most dangerous man in Europe".

Reacting to Michel Barnier's Brexit appointment, the Financial Times quoted a senior banker saying: "It's incredibly provocative. This is Juncker's revenge on Britain."

But interestingly, since taking the job, there have been few direct attacks either in the UK or amongst EU countries which are usually critical of Brussels on Michel Barnier's Brexit manoeuvres.

Last month, after the first round of face-to-face EU-UK talks, the vociferously pro-Brexit Daily Mail described him as sleek, dandyish and the model of diplomacy except, it said, when he adopted the tones of an "upset divorce lawyer".

By this week, the UK press was so eager for evidence of discontent with the way Brussels was orchestrating Brexit talks that journalists jumped on derogatory comments by German MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel.

He asserted that Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, were out to sabotage Brexit. In an op-ed in The Times, he wrote that the two men wanted to "make a mess out of this whole unhappy situation" and to "punish the British, full stop".

But what most UK publications failed to point out was that, far from representing a mainstream view in Germany, Mr Henkel was, until not long ago, a prominent member of the minority Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

That is not to say that European leaders and civil servants I speak to are wild about Monsieur Barnier (who has insisted from the start there is no "spirit of revenge" about his Brexit approach). You find widespread respect for him in EU circles, but many Europeans have an inherent suspicion of the French, whom they view as having a superiority complex.

Some criticise Mr Barnier for "being too ready to take to Twitter" to show his preparedness for all things Brexit. One contact said he put out a negative tweet about the British position paper on EU citizens' post-Brexit rights before he could have had time to read it all.

"Ego and vanity" were cited as Mr Barnier's main failings in a profile that ran in Spain's conservative El Mundo newspaper last month.

The paper said after years of travelling in chauffeur-driven cars (in commission jobs in Brussels and government positions in Paris), he was out of touch with "real people". But the same article also goes on to describe Mr Barnier as indefatigable, a good listener and someone who will tirelessly search for a workable compromise.

Compromise will be needed from both the EU and the UK for a Brexit deal to emerge from talks.

Image source, AFP
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The men leading the talks: David Davis (L), representing the UK, and Mr Barnier

European diplomats say it's too early to really judge Mr Barnier as this is still the beginning of Brexit negotiations - and Brussels has a habit of showing creative-thinking and making deals at the 11th hour.

But you could argue the Barnier team should show some flexibility to encourage the British side - if they are indeed serious about reaching a Brexit deal.

The UK has already made significant concessions: accepting the EU-chosen phased timetable for negotiations (divorce first and only then talks about a future relationship) and it has also now acknowledged the notion of financial liabilities on leaving the EU (after the government first pooh-poohed the idea).

So, as a confidence-building measure, shouldn't Mr Barnier give an inch or four on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK after Brexit, and/or the total of a Brexit bill, for example?

Yet I am unable to put him on the Brexit spot with these questions as BBC colleagues do day in and day out with UK government ministers.

Why? Because Mr Barnier and his team are simply not speaking to journalists right now outside scheduled press conferences.

So far in his capacity as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, he has given one simultaneous interview to a group of British and European papers following the UK general election.

And that's it.

Media caption,
Brexit: What's the difference between a hard or soft Brexit?

The European Commission would argue that the EU is being extremely transparent - with a plethora of its Brexit position papers available online. But, of course, that's not the same as sitting down for a rigorous interview.

Here in Brussels there's not much of a sense of accountability to journalists.

Just pop along to the European Commission's daily midday press briefing for a taster. Controversial or uncomfortable questions are often met with a "no comment" in a way that would be unthinkable in London or most other European capitals.

The interesting thing for me is that it's not just the commission - European countries have "closed ranks" too. Leading European politicians do not want to give on-the-record interviews about Brexit right now.

There has, in fact, been a complete role reversal amongst the Brexit negotiators.

Before talks started, UK government ministers were keeping stumm. Their line: we don't give a running commentary on our Brexit positions; that would not help us in negotiations.

At that stage, here in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, leaders were happy to talk.

Now, Prime Minister Theresa May is having a hard time keeping her cabinet quiet while the EU has gone silent.

This all probably boils down to self-interest.

Image source, Rex Features
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The result of the general election weakened Mrs May

Ministers like David Davis, Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond are keen to make a name for themselves over Brexit, with an eye, following Theresa May's poor election performance, on the prime minister's job.

The unusual unity over Brexit amongst often fractious EU leaders can be explained by their common goal in these divorce proceedings: ensuring the UK pays an exit bill.

That would go a long way - in the short term at least - towards covering the gaping hole which will be left in the EU budget when the UK walks out the door.

Rich countries like Germany and the Netherlands want to put off having to pay a penny more to make up the shortfall, while recipients of EU subsidies like Hungary or Romania want to ensure they get the funding they've been expecting.

In the end, we shouldn't be too surprised by the lack of criticism aimed at Michel Barnier in mainstream European circles.

He's their man, after all - more divorce lawyer than powerful politician - and can only negotiate along the previously-agreed guidelines 27 EU countries have given him, and according to EU law (hence his assertion that there can be no "cherry-picking" when it comes to single market access, for example).

What makes this historic Brexit process all the more dramatic is that it is played out by two starkly different negotiating parties.

Image source, Reuters
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The UK and the EU have several divergences in their Brexit talks

The EU is like a huge tanker, weighty and solid - its journey carefully mapped out - but unable to react quickly to changing circumstances.

The UK is freer to move as it chooses through uncharted waters, though its course - post-election - remains rather erratic and unclear.

The final Brexit deal isn't up to Michel Barnier.

EU countries will again set political priorities, parameters and tone when it comes to discussing the future EU-UK relationship and any transition periods.

For now, Mr Barnier says the European Union is still waiting - with a little anxiety and a lot of impatience - to know exactly what the UK wants, while there is still time left to negotiate.