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article imageBankers' 'bete noire' to lead Brexit talks

By Bryan McManus (AFP)     Jul 27, 2016 in World

Veteran French politician and former EU commissioner Michel Barnier was named Wednesday to lead Brexit talks with London where he was the "bete noire" of free-wheeling bankers hostile to his bonus curbs and tighter regulations.

European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said Barnier was just the man to lead what promise to be difficult talks as he has the experience and contacts needed to win agreement.

Britain's June 23 vote to quit the 28-nation European Union shocked EU leaders who had bet on a vote to remain, with France and the Commission leading demands that negotiations should begin as soon as possible.

"I am very glad that my friend Michel Barnier accepted this important and challenging task. I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job," Juncker said in a statement.

Article 50: the cue to start the Brexit talks
Article 50: the cue to start the Brexit talks
Kun TIAN, Sophie RAMIS, Alain BOMMENEL, AFP

"I am sure that he will live up to this new challenge and help us to develop a new partnership with the United Kingdom" after it becomes the first country to leave the EU.

Barnier, 65, held the key Commission financial services portfolio from 2010 to 2014, spearheading efforts to tame the eurozone debt crisis which nearly brought down the single currency project.

He was central to efforts to save the EU's stricken banks, laying down tough rules to police a new banking union system which often put him at loggerheads with the City of London, one of the world's top financial markets.

Barnier was also closely linked to curbing banker bonuses, which were widely blamed for encouraging the risk-taking culture that ultimately left the banks over-stretched and in need of massive government bailouts costing billions.

Jacques Lafitte of the Avisa investment advisory group in Brussels said the appointment sent a very clear message of intent to Britain.

"After all these years that the City has demonised Michel Barnier, often unjustly, the Commission could not have sent a firmer message to the English," Lafitte told AFP.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and British Prime Minister Theresa May met in Berlin on July 20 ...
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and British Prime Minister Theresa May met in Berlin on July 20, 2016, with Brexit as a top subject in their discussion
John Macdougall, AFP/File

Barnier told BFM TV in France shortly after the June 23 Brexit vote that the outcome was a loss for all but stressed the common interests.

"Beyond Brexit, we will continue to have shared interests with the British, especially in everything that touches upon our collective security," he said.

Barnier was currently serving as an adviser to Juncker on security issues as the EU reels from a series of deadly attacks claimed by Islamic State jihadis.

- No rush to begin talks -

New British Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear London will not be rushed into the Brexit talks which are widely expected to begin early next year.

May insists she wants Britain to keep the fullest access possible to the bloc's single market of 500 million people while at the same time having the right to limit EU migrants, the key issue which turned the referendum.

Juncker and EU leaders agree that close ties with the world's fifth largest economy are in the interests of both sides but they also insist they will not accept limits on the free movement of people, a core EU principle.

Juncker has repeatedly stressed the need to get the talks underway as soon as possible so as to end the uncertainty over both Britain's and the bloc's future.

Barnier takes up his position on October 1 but the Brexit talks can only begin once Britain invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which sets the clock ticking on two-years of divorce talks.

If the talks fail to produce an agreement, Britain will end up leaving the EU unceremoniously and be treated as any other country with no special privileges under World Trade Organization rules.

Barnier also previously served as EU commissioner for regional policy and had stints as both French foreign and agriculture minister.

He tweeted he was "honoured to be entrusted UK negotiation by @JunckerEU and @EU Commission. Rendez-vous for beginning of demanding task on 1 October."

Juncker said Barnier was a "skilled negotiator with rich experience in major policy areas relevant to the negotiations (and) ... has an extensive network of contacts."

"He will report directly to me and I will invite him to brief regularly the (commissioners) to keep my team abreast of the negotiations," he added.

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