Without doubt, the Commission President is embarrassing – embarrassing when he comments, embarrassing when he doesn’t take decisions, and even embarrassing when he does. Appointing Michel Barnier as chief Brexit negotiator on behalf of the Commission comes squarely under this last category, and in more ways than one.
First of all, the process. We know that a battle has recently begun over who should choose the chief negotiator: the Member States or the Commission? In the Commission there has been much appetite to obtain this important post, not only on the grounds of general EU interest but also due to various personal ambitions. But the Member States – unanimously it seems – have decided otherwise, appointing “on behalf of the European Union” the young, brilliant, highly-qualified and multilingual Didier Seeuws, a Belgian and senior civil servant within the Council of Ministers.
Given the current mentality of the Commission, more and more becoming a centre of power for its own benefit, such an affront had to be avenged, so the result is the appointment of Michel Barnier –a respectable man admittedly, but in the circumstances a bad casting error.
Born in 1951, Michel Barnier has between 1973 and 2014 held an uninterrupted chain of local, national and European political positions: parliamentarian, minister, commissioner. It’s not that Mr Barnier doesn’t know the EU labyrinth, but why give such responsibility to a retired monolinguist? Is there no capable and multilingual 40 or 50-year old within the Commission who can take this job? And why choose a man whose last two candidacies have failed? A so-so EPP candidate for Commission President in spring 2015, he was soundly defeated by Jean-Claude Juncker. A weak UMP candidate for President of the Rhône-Alpes region in late 2015, well beaten by Laurent Wauquiez.
Finally, Mr Barnier’s appointment negates the spirit of ‘Better Regulation’ which First Vice-President Frans Timmermans is trying to impose. Is it necessary for the President to maintain this pointless reservoir of special advisers where Michel Barnier comes from? Can we give a retiree the post of ‘Director-General’ (this will be his status), with all the issues that immediately arise in terms of organising the Commission services, delineating his competence from Didier Seeuws’s, potential inter-institutional war, not to mention inevitable questions about multiple salaries for a retiree who has now become a Director General with, I imagine, all the advantages of that post.
One month on from the Brexit vote, this has been the only decision taken by the Commission. Nothing else. We have a lot to be angry about!