EU May Give Brexit Negotiator Barnier Top Job in French Push

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union may reward its Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with the top job of leading the European Commission as momentum is building behind the Frenchman’s informal candidacy ahead of a summit in Brussels to negotiate who will head the bloc’s main institutions.

France is pushing its candidate to head the EU’s executive arm and has Spain and Ireland in its corner. Key eastern European countries are set to signal they could back Barnier as long as they get something in return, such as the the EU’s foreign policy chief, officials familiar with their position said.

The horse-trading for the top EU jobs has kicked off with the European Parliament elections over. The other prize position is the European Central Bank presidency. France and Germany, Europe’s two biggest economies, have traditionally had substantial leverage over the EU roles and Macron’s opening move would enhance Germany’s claim to the ECB.

EU May Give Brexit Negotiator Barnier Top Job in French Push

But the challenge is that Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann is a non-starter for southern leaders for his long-held hawkish views, opposition to many of Mario Draghi’s unconventional measures and repeatedly calling for the start of a cycle of higher interest rates.

“It will take a while,” Franceso Papadia, a former senior ECB official, said in a Bloomberg TV interview with Francine Lacqua and Tom Keene. “If anything, I think the probability of a more neutral candidate -- and you mentioned Olli Rehn, you mentioned Erkki Likannen, you mentioned Benoit Coeure -- it may be nowadays more likely than an extreme candidate like Mr. Weidmann.”

For now the focus of this summit seems to be on the commission job. Paris squarely opposes the bid of Manfred Weber, the official candidate of the bloc’s center-right parties for the role at the EU’s executive arm, according to an official asking not to be named, in line with policy.

EU May Give Brexit Negotiator Barnier Top Job in French Push

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on France Inter radio that he liked Barnier: “I’ve known him a long time and appreciate his qualities, but this is a discussion to have at the European level.”

Barnier is widely appreciated among the bloc’s leaders, including Ireland, for negotiating a deal for the orderly withdrawal of the U.K. from the EU, which is seen as safeguarding the bloc’s interests. The deal has been repeatedly rejected by British lawmakers.

An EU diplomat, asking not to be named pending the formal talks between leaders, said that no one will be against Barnier as long as they get what they want in the bargaining process. On the contrary, Weber’s bid is facing headwinds, as governments including Greece, Hungary and France oppose it.

EU May Give Brexit Negotiator Barnier Top Job in French Push

Macron in the meantime, is already trying to build consensus around his co-national. Last week he met with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, he dined with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last night, and today will lunch in Brussels with those same two Iberian leaders as well as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Belgium’s Charles Michel.

Sanchez and Macron agreed last night to work together to push for social democrats and liberals to be included among the EU’s senior officials, Spanish officials said.

Barnier has led the EU’s negotiations with Britain over Brexit since 2016. He’s also been the EU Commissioner for the internal market, as well as holding several cabinet positions in France. He officially belongs to the EPP group, though he has close ties to Macron who is trying to set up a new centrist group in the EU parliament.

Europe’s political parties on Tuesday defended the lead-candidate system for choosing the commission chief while stopping short of a veto threat should national leaders come up with a nominee such as Barnier from outside the group of official contenders.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said he would make the case for the non-binding selection process when he speaks to EU government heads later Tuesday. The EU Parliament must approve the commission head, giving the assembly some leverage in what is a game of political horse-trading, institutional muscle-flexing and geographical-power balancing.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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