Who is Michel Barnier? Meet the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator

Michel Barnier speaking at a conference Image copyright AFP Image caption Michel Barnier has been an MEP, a Commissioner and the French foreign minister The British papers love a French villain at the heart of the EU.

Is Michel Barnier about to succeed Jacques Delors as the object of their affection?

The veteran Gaullist already has form.

When he was Commissioner for the Internal Market and Financial Services, Mr Barnier was dubbed “the most dangerous man in Europe” after taking on the banking sector and championing a cap on bankers’ bonuses.

But while he alarmed some in the City, and will probably do so again, he also won grudging respect as a tough but even-handed negotiator.

He will need all those skills and more in his new role – chief Brexit negotiator at the European Commission.

And having moved seamlessly between big jobs in Paris and Brussels – French foreign minister, Commissioner, MEP – he looks well prepared.

“Don’t ask me to tell you what will be at the end of the road, we haven’t begun to walk yet,” he told a conference in Brussels last month.

Mr Barnier will stick closely to the official EU position of “no negotiation without notification” – waiting for the UK to trigger Article 50 to start the formal process of withdrawal.

But he’s clearly eager to get going.

“I am waiting to begin,” he said. “I will be ready tomorrow to negotiate, frankly speaking.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption David Davis – the UK’s Minister for Exiting the European Union – served as Europe minister at the same time as Mr Barnier

And he will bring with him an instinctive pro-European agenda, and a deep knowledge of the workings of the single market.

His deputy as chief Brexit negotiator is a German trade expert, Sabine Weyand, adding to the impression that Mr Barnier will lead a team that means business.

One of the biggest challenges he (and his boss Jean-Claude Juncker) faces, is to ensure that representatives of the big member states don’t sideline him in the Brexit divorce negotiations.

But Mr Barnier’s long career in French politics means he could well have the ear of the Elysee Palace, especially if – as looks likely – a centre-right candidate wins the French presidency next year.

The stakes are so high that there are bound to be some clashes.

Mr Barnier has sparred with the UK’s Minister for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, before, when the men both served as Europe ministers in the 1990s.

It is another reminder that Michel Barnier is a politician first and foremost, rather than a bureaucrat.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Last month European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned Brexit as one of the EU’s big challenges

There have certainly been criticisms – a dash of vanity, a lack of attention to detail. His career has had plenty of downs as well as ups.

But he will defend his European vision to the end, and the British government would do well not to underestimate him.

At the height of the eurozone crisis, Mr Barnier always refused (politely) to do broadcast interviews in English.

“One wrong word,” he told me once with a smile, “and we could move markets.”

The next few years will be equally challenging.

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