Michel Barnier, thorn in side of UK banks, named EU head in Brexit talks

Michel Barnier will lead negotiations with the United Kingdom (UK) over its exit from the EU.
Michel Barnier will lead negotiations with the United Kingdom (UK) over its exit from the EU.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - The architect of some of the European Union's most controversial financial regulation will lead negotiations with the United Kingdom (UK) over its exit from the bloc.

Michel Barnier, a Frenchman who frequently traded blows with the UK during his time as head of banking legislation from 2010-2014, will head a team of negotiators who will thrash out the terms of Britain's split from the EU and start to shape the two sides' future relationship.

"I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday in a statement after making the appointment.

Some in the UK may consider Mr Barnier's selection to be a provocative move, or a sign that Mr Juncker wants to reduce the influence of the City of London as part of the Brexit process. During Mr Barnier's time as European commissioner, the British government clashed repeatedly with the EU over issues from a cap on bankers' bonuses to the location of clearing houses.

He frequently had to rebuff UK claims that his policies were hurting London's financial district and causing a shift of business to centers in the euro area. At the same time, he issued warnings that Britain had to accept EU financial regulations in exchange for access to the bloc's single market.

Adding an extra complexity, Mr Barnier, a former agriculture minister in the French government, is also reluctant to speak English in public.

He will take up the role on Oct. 1 and is likely to go head-to-head with the UK's Brexit minister, David Davis, once the British government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will fire the starting gun on two years of wrangling. Mr Barnier and Mr Davis have encountered each other before: they were their country's respective European affairs ministers in the mid-1990s.

Mr Barnier always denied that he had a prejudice against the UK or its liberal financial industry. By the time his period in office ended, he had won plaudits for his even-handed approach.

"I suffered a lot from this prejudging because I was French, I was Gaullist. I asked to be judged on my acts and on my attitude," Mr Barnier said in an interview in September 2014.