Brussels Brexit Briefing – 2nd August

As we enter the summer break in the UK and across Europe, Brexit fervour at last seems to be dying down.

The big news in the last week has been the appointment, by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, of former French Foreign Minister and EU Commissioner, Michel Barnier, to lead the EU’s Brexit negotiations. Mr Barnier, who led the Commission’s overhaul of EU banking laws in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, is already being seen as a provocative appointment by many in the UK media, given France’s firm stance on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Mr Barnier starts his new job on the 1st October. He will help the Commission prepare for the day the UK formally invokes Article 50 to leave the EU, and then act as the main intermediary in what is likely to be complex, lengthy and contentious negotiations.

Mr Barnier, 65, has held many posts in the French government, including foreign and agriculture minister. Upon being named, he tweeted in English “Rendez-vous for beginning of demanding task on 1 October”. During his five years as the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner until 2014, in which he presided over the passage of more than 40 pieces of financial legislation, he clashed with his British counterparts on a number of regulatory issues. He was called the “scourge of the City” in the UK press and seen as a threat rather than a partner in the financial reform after the 2008 crisis.

British media reacted predictably to his appointment. The Sun’s political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, tweeted “hard to think of a more anti-British figure, declaration of war”. Tom Shipman of the Sunday Times tweeted “appointing Michel Barnier, one of the least popular ex-commissioners in London, as point man for Brexit is an act of war by Juncker” and the Daily Express wrote about the “Most DANGEROUS man in EU”. Even arch-Europhile Nick Clegg MP, the UK’s former Deputy Prime Minister, insisted that Mr Barnier’s appointment would set off alarm bells as he is “no friend of the City of London.”

Mr Barnier has experience in dealing with a prickly political situation. As French Foreign Minister between 2004 and 2005, he worked to smooth relations between his country and the Bush Administration, which was still furious at France’s refusal to back the 2003 Iraq War.

However, British Prime Minister Theresa May may try to bypass the Commission and appeal directly to EU leaders in a bid to secure a better deal. Mrs May has already met the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Slovakia and Poland. After talks in Slovakia, she suggested that Britain would not seek to copy Norway’s relationship with the EU, saying, “We need to find a solution that addresses the concerns of the British people about free movement, while getting the best possible deal on trade in goods and services. We should be driven by what is in the best interests of the UK and what is going to work for the EU, not by the models that already exist.”

Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia (which holds the EU’s rotating presidency), urged Mrs May to explain how she sees future UK-EU relations before invoking Article 50. “We hope that the UK will use this time before triggering Article 50 for redefining and also for formulating a vision of its relations with the EU,” he said.

Britain’s former ambassador to France and incoming EU Commissioner, Sir Julian King, is set to take up the Security Union portfolio, after Mr Juncker nominated him to lead the executive arm’s fight against terrorism, organised crime and radicalisation.

Sir Julian was nominated for Commissioner after the previous British member, Lord (Jonathan) Hill resigned in the wake of Britain’s vote in June to leave the EU. Lord Hill had previously been the UK’s representative on the Commission responsible for financial services, a policy area likely to be central to Britain’s exit negotiations.

If confirmed, Sir Julian would support the implementation of the European Agenda on Security that the European Commission adopted in April 2015. He will contribute to delivering an operational and effective Security Union, as the Commission announced in its Communication of 20th April 2016 on delivering on the European Agenda on Security.

Meanwhile in a new report, Standard & Poor’s ratings agency’s global chief economist Paul Sheard has warned that “the EU, as it’s currently constructed and operates, doesn’t embody a coherent ‘pooling’ of the various dimensions of nation-state sovereignty, and therefore it’s unsustainable in its current form”. The report argues that, in the wake of Brexit, the EU must either be a looser form of political and economic federation, in which member states take back some sovereignty, or a stronger form, in which aspects of sovereignty that are not currently shared are ceded to EU level. It adds that “the time has come for Europe to ‘think big’ and to convene a constitutional convention” and suggests that if this were to happen, the UK may want to delay triggering Article 50 in order to take part.

Words  Leo Cendrowicz
Photo CC/Flickr Takashi Hososhima

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