The negotiations about the terms under which the United Kingdom will eventually leave the European Union were never going to be easy. But the European Commission’s decision to appointed 65-year-old Michel Barnier as its chief negotiator shows that both sides are preparing for a tough fight.
Mr. Barnier, a French conservative, is not loved in Britain. When he held a key post on the European Commission, overseeing financial regulation, he went into battle against London-based banks over an ambitious reform of the banking sector. In that post, which he held from 2010 to 2014, he pushed through 40 pieces of legislation, including establishing a banking union and implementing the extensive partitioning of the banking sector between the classic lending business and risky activities like proprietary trading.
British newspapers at the time dubbed him “The most dangerous man in Europe.”
Since then, he has been viewed in London as an enemy of the British. Not surprisingly, there has been little enthusiasm over his appointment in Great Britain. The political editor of Britain’s biggest selling newspaper The Sun, Tom Newton Dunn, tweeted that it is difficult to imagine someone who is more strongly "anti-British," adding that his appointment was "a declaration of war."
Mr. Barnier is seen as an independent thinker who does not allow himself to be turned into an extended arm of national interests.
Mr. Barnier is well respected in both Paris and Brussels. In France, he held several cabinet posts, including the position of foreign minister from 2004 to 2005. At the time, he led delicate negotiations with hostage-takers in Lebanon who had abducted two French journalists.
He is also one of France's most experienced politicians. He was a member of the European Parliament and, from 1999 to 2004, served as European Commissioner on regional policy. At the time, Mr. Barnier was involved in drafting the European constitution, which failed in 2005 when it was voted down in a referendum in his own country and the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, Mr. Barnier is seen as an independent thinker who does not allow himself to be turned into an extended arm of national interests. In the 2014 European election, he had hoped to become the top conservative candidate. But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker won the race instead. In public appearances, Mr. Barnier comes across as somewhat distant and stiff.
Contrary to fears in the United Kingdom, Mr. Barnier has not been known to utter any anti-British sentiments. Still, it can be assumed that he will not lose sight of European interests. This is especially true of individual freedom of movement – a crucial point in the negotiation over Great Britain's exit from the European Union.
Mr. Juncker described the Frenchman, who will start in the new role on October 1, as a skilled negotiator with many contacts across Europe.
"I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job," the commission president said. "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."
It is likely to be a tough battle between Mr. Barnier and David Davis, the man British prime minister, Theresa May, has appointed to represent the U.K. A few days ago Mr. Davis, a Brexit supporter, said in an interview that he expects Great Britain will continue to have access to the European single market – without accepting the principle of free movement.