Wednesday 20 September 2017

'The most dangerous man in Europe' has won over critics

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Picture: AFP
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier Picture: AFP

Dave Keating

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator has been painted in the UK as inflexible and out to punish Britain. It is a far cry from his reputation in Brussels.

Michel Barnier is not a man known for losing his cool. But at the closing press conference for the third round of Brexit negotiations in Brussels this week, the Frenchman was visibly agitated.

"We did not get any decisive progress on any of the principal subjects," he said solemnly. The only positive outcome he could point to was "fruitful" discussions on the Border, but even these did not yield an outcome.

"With every passing day, we move closer to that date of departure," he said. His face has increasingly reflected worry that a deal will not be reached before the 'cliff's edge' - March 2019, the date by which the UK must leave the EU.

People in Brussels are taking his warning seriously, because Barnier is not known for hyperbole. Nicknamed 'Mr Smooth' and 'the Silver Fox', he is known as a personable negotiator who gets right down to business.

He is tall, attractive and charming, always well-dressed with not a hair out of place. Few would characterise him as an ideologue.

Yet in much of the British media, he has been portrayed as someone driven solely by a desire to punish the UK for Brexiting. When he was appointed as Brexit negotiator last year, 'The Sun' called it a "declaration of war". 'The Daily Telegraph' repeated its 2010 characterisation of Barnier as "the most dangerous man in Europe". And 'The Daily Mail' called his appointment "an act of petty aggression" by the EU. He was said to be an ideologue hostile toward capitalism and the English-speaking world.

The caricature is unrecognisable to those who have worked with him.

Barnier is well-known and trusted in Brussels - this is his third stint in the EU capital. It was his days as EU finance chief that are remembered most acutely in the UK. He came into office just after the financial crisis of 2008 had begun, and it was his job to clean up the excesses that had taken place in the City of London.

He earned the nickname "the scourge of the City" in those early days, not helped by the fact that the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had called Barnier's appointment a "defeat for Anglo-Saxon capitalism".

But in time this fearsome reputation subsided, and he came to be known as someone the City could work with. Arlene McCarthy, a former member of the European Parliament who worked closely with Barnier on financial services reform, describes him as a "fair negotiator".

"You'll never ever find him raising his voice; he's always very calm - but he's not a pushover," she said. The caricature of the proud Frenchman out to get London couldn't be further from the truth.

In the end, Barnier made plenty of concessions to the City of London. He promoted the right of London-based hedge funds to operate across the EU and gave the UK an exemption to the EU's proposed bank ring-fencing rules.

Barnier began his political life in the Savoy region in the French Alps as a young Gaullist - a strongly patriotic movement inspired by former French president Charles de Gaulle that sees France as the centre of the universe.

But over the years his attachment to that movement waned. He first became well-known in France when he won the town of Albertville's bid to host the Winter Olympics in 1992, serving as co-president of the Olympic Committee during the games. He was appointed as environment minister and then joined president Jacques Chirac's team as minister for European affairs until 1999, when he was sent to Brussels.

Over the years his commitment drifted from France more to Europe as a whole. He notoriously keeps photos of de Gaulle and former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer on his desk.

His attachment to his home region in the mountains, however, has never waned. He is a passionate hiker, and he likes to use metaphors about hiking to describe political negotiations. He even bonded with British Prime Minister Theresa May over their shared love of hiking.

"If you like walking in the mountains you have to learn some rules," he said shortly after the meeting. "You have to put one foot in front of the other, because sometimes it is a steep and rocky path. You also have to look for what accidents might befall you."

Irish Independent

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