Saturday 20 January 2018

The mountain man: Why Barnier can aid Ireland in uphill struggle of Brexit

The EU Brexit chief's deal-making abilities and tolerance can be crucial as the future is decided

Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier
Ailish O'Hora

Ailish O'Hora

There may well have been awkward scenes in Brussels on Thursday when the monthly fire alarm test at the EU Commission building disrupted the press conference of the EU's chief Brexit negotiator and French politician Michel Barnier.

But the only alarm bells voiced by the former EU Commissioner in his speech - which coincided with the publication of new EU papers setting out its negotiating stance on the future of the Irish Border, customs, etc - were his worries about Britain's take on its future border with Ireland.

"What I see in the UK's paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland worries me," Barnier told the conference, highlighting that a solution on the Irish Border had to be "unique".

"The UK wants the EU to suspend the application of its laws, its customs union and its single market at what will be a new external border for the EU, and the UK wants to use Ireland as a kind of test case for the future EU-UK customs relations. This will not happen," he added, stating that finding solutions would require flexibility on both sides.

It was as if the mood music had changed and the statement mirrored the more hardened stance taken recently by the Irish Government against Britain's seemingly chaotic approach to Brexit.

This was the straight-talking Alpine Barnier (66), the politician who declared himself as a "man of the mountain" when he brought the Winter Olympics to his hometown of Albertville, in the French region of Savoie back in 1992.

"Barnier has his eye on the prize and the clock, as he has reminded us in the past. He can see the big picture too - he has done the local, national and European when it comes to politics," said one Brussel-based EU source who knows him.

"He wants to reach a deal, as it wanted by the other 27 member states. Ultimately he is a deal-maker.

"Airy-fairy aspirational language is well and good as we saw in the UK's position papers, but he sees the importance for Ireland and the EU to have a concrete agreement," the source said.

He added that Barnier also has great insight into this country's situation going back to the role he played in the peace process, but he always sees the bigger picture. Barnier was regional commissioner in charge of the peace programme and recently told members of the Dail and Seanad that he was personally invested in the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed almost 20 years ago.

One senior Northern Ireland politician who worked with him at the time found Barnier to be a keen negotiator who is tough but fair.

"He is a man of particularisms and is clear about his requirements but he is consistent in those.

"He has no problem explaining his position but that doesn't mean he is inflexible. He and his officials were very clear about the requirements and standards they wanted in the peace II programme and the various other European funding programmes," he said.

"While they would have been quite clear about targets and indicators, they were tolerant to the fact that these needed to be agreed and have a sense of local ownership. They also made their own contacts on the ground and were comfortable dealing with people."

Fast forward to the case of Brexit, the Single Market is sacrosanct - Barnier has made this clear and he has also said the three key issues of the Border, the exit bill and citizens' rights are the three key planks that the EU wants to see progress on before discussions can move to the next stage.

But even if the tone of the Brexit talks has become a little sharper in recent times, probably reflecting frustration on the EU side, those who know Barnier say this won't prompt a breakdown in relations or talks which are set to continue for quite some time ahead of the UK exit scheduled for 2019.

He is patient and won't be needled by individuals either, the Northern Ireland source said.

"His tolerance levels didn't allow him to be needled by (David) Trimble's slights of the EU," he added.

Trimble, who is keenly pro-Brexit, is a former Northern Ireland first minister.

He headed up the Ulster Unionists during the peace talks that paved the way to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 as well as the creation of a power-sharing executive at Stormont.

But Barnier already has a good relationship with UK Brexit secretary David Davis despite their being on different sides of this Brexit divide.

"They were both Ministers for European Affairs in the mid-1990s and worked on the Amsterdam Treaty together and have a very cordial approach to each other," the EU source added.

"Anyway, you know the saying, the door is always open? Well, in his case it is."

Another senior political source in Brussel described Barnier as "affable, personable and political and he is also a good friend of Ireland in these talks. He knows his stuff".

Barnier also has a sense of humour. When he and Davis first met for Brexit talks earlier this summer, they exchanged gifts.

Davis presented Barnier with a rare book on mountaineering - a French-language version of Regards vers l'Annapurna. They are both keen hikers.

Barnier gave Davis a traditional carved walking stick from his home area of Savoie.

But he also bought himself one which he keeps in his office - a cautionary reminder of the uphill Brexit talks ahead of the scheduled British exit date of March 2019.

And while those on the UK negotiation side speak of the "respect" they have for Barnier, he has his detractors too. His calls for more financial regulation as EU commissioner for internal markets and services from 2010 and 2014 infuriated British ministers and many in the City of London.

To the Paris elite, his crime is not to have attended the prestigious Ecole nationale d'administration.

He has also been labelled a federalist, and some in the UK press have pilloried him as the man out to punish Britain for Brexit. But so far it would appear that he has proved himself a deal-maker determined to avoid the so-called 'train crash' Brexit that some business leaders have warned about.

The ultimate prize for him could be presidency of the European Commission depending on how the Brexit talks go - something he failed to achieve in 2014.

And at the risk of sounding somewhat parochial, having a character onside with his honed negotiating skills and unique understanding of this country should only be a boon for Ireland, especially if the talks end up in the bear pit.

Sunday Indo Business

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