Brexit: UK ‘hasn’t seen the back of Barnier’ claims expert
Mr Barnier has played an important role in shaping the future relationship between the EU and Britain. A mere month after the UK voted to leave the bloc, Brussels announced he would be the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. Commenting on the appointment Jean-Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission, said: “I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job.”
For the 2020 trade talks, Mr Barnier was once again the main negotiator and despite months of tensions, the two sides reached an agreement on Christmas Eve.
His career in Brussels does not seem to be over, though.
The French politician will become a special adviser overseeing the ratification of the post-Brexit trade deal, under new arrangements that hand responsibility for implementing the deal to European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.
Mr Barnier’s role as special adviser to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen allows him to stay on beyond his current contract, which ends on January 31.
According to the Commission’s staff regulations, officials are required to retire at age 66, but can have their service extended by up to four years.
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The regulation states: “An official may at his own request, and where the appointing authority considers it justified in the interests of the service, carry on working until the age of 67, or exceptionally, until the age of 70, in which case he shall be retired automatically on the last day of the month in which he reaches that age.”
Mr Barnier turned 70 on January 9.
However, a Commission official said Mr Barnier’s appointment will last until formal ratification of the trade agreement.
Eric Mamer, the Commission’s chief spokesman, confirmed the mandatory retirement age but said the Commission never comments on individual employment cases.
The new appointment might have been against Mr Barnier’s wishes, as the Brexit negotiator had said he wanted to go back his motherland’s politics.
Last week, he said he would “go back to France in a few weeks” to “take back my place” in the conservative Les Républicains party, of which he has been a member for more than 55 years.
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He told a group of European journalists in a video interview: “Unlike the caricatures that certain media or certain British tabloids have made of me, I have never been a Brussels super-technocrat.
“I remain a politician… I will take back my place in the political debate, first in the political family which has always been mine, even if I have been in a minority in that political family, notably on the European line.
“I am happy that in a few weeks I’ll go back to my country, which I miss, to meet citizens, who I miss.”
Despite widespread admiration in France, Mr Barnier has kept his distance from the Les Républicains, where he takes a more moderate and pro-European line than the party leadership, and from President Emmanuel Macron.
Asked whether Mr Macron could replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe’s most popular leader, Mr Barnier said he did not believe that “there will be one person imposing themselves on others”, as “there are institutional responsibilities”.
However, it is no secret the French President is planning to manoeuvre himself as leader of Europe.
Without Britain in the EU and Mrs Merkel soon resigning, Mr Macron has better chances to succeed, as well.
In November 2019, Mr Macron travelled to Beijing and met with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
As the two leaders posed for pictures, the French head stood in front of the European flag at the People’s Palace next to the Chinese leader.
This was viewed as highly unusual as Mr Macron has no formal European Union mandate.
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A POLITICO comment piece argued: “It appeared to show that, for China at least, the French President is viewed as the leader of Europe.”
Both leaders looked on as Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan and former EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan signed an EU-China agreement on geographic indications (GI), providing intellectual property protections for European gourmet food exports to China.
The latest sign of France’s growing importance in EU-China relations came this month, when President Xi sealed a landmark investment pact with the bloc, witnessed by both Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron.
Mr Macron took part in the ceremony at the invitation of the German Chancellor, who represented Germany, which was the holder of the EU Council presidency until the day after the China deal was signed.
Mrs Merkel has been the main proponent of the investment agreement but it will be up to Mr Macron to help drive its implementation, with the deal expected to take effect in 2022 during France’s presidency of the EU Council.
Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank, said: “Macron will certainly use the opportunities offered by less UK involvement and the French presidency [of the EU Council] in 2022 to give Europe-China policy more of a French touch.”
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