The 29th Commissioner

Jean-Claude Juncker displayed his capacity to surprise with the appointment of Michel Barnier, a former French Minister and Commission VP, as his chief Brexit negotiator.

Barnier will assume office on 1 October 2016 with the long-winded official title of “Chief Negotiator in charge of the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the UK under article 50 TEU”.  Officially he will have the rank of Director-General and report directly to Juncker and regularly brief the College of Commissioners on progress in the negotiations. He won’t have his own DG but will have at his disposal “the best Commission experts”. Although he doesn’t have the job title, there can be little doubt that he will have the status of Commissioner for Brexit.

3 things this appointment tells us:

1. The Commission is seeking to grasp the initiative back from Member States going into the summer.

Contrast the appointment of a high profile politician like Barnier with the appointment of the little known diplomat Didier Seeuws to head the Council’s taskforce on the future relations with the UK. It seems clear that this appointment was designed to grab the headlines and the initiative on the EU’s response to Brexit. 

2. The Commission intends to fight hard to grab power in these negotiations.

While Barnier’s mandate should be limited to the more technical article 50 talks, he will clearly seek to influence the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Juncker ended his press statement yesterday with the conviction that Barnier “will help us to develop a new partnership with the UK after it has left the EU”.

3. Barnier’s anti-British credentials are overplayed but his appointment is more likely to lead to a difficult divorce

The British press dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Europe” but his reputation as anti-British is heavily overplayed. However, he is a convinced European federalist who doesn’t like to speak in English, both qualities will mean that negotiations are unlikely to be warm.