Michel Barnier’s hopes of replacing von der Leyen crushed amid deepening vaccine row

Michael Barnier discusses plans for future in French politics

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, former President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker 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.

As the discussions drew closer, many started speculating about what Mr Barnier’s next job could be.

A 2014 interview with the French politician suggested he may want to replace Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission.

Six years ago, when Portuguese Conservative José Manuel Barroso was heading the Commission, Mr Barnier did say he was ready for the top job.

According to EU regulations, though, Mr Barnier will never be allowed to become President of the Commission now.

Rules were already stretched in January, when he was appointed a special adviser overseeing the ratification of the post-Brexit trade deal, under new arrangements that handed responsibility for implementing the deal to European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

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His role as special adviser to Ms 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.

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 to his motherland’s politics.

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Last month, 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.

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.”

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In an extraordinary move, Mr Barnier recently urged the EU to step back from a deepening row with Britain over the shortage of vaccines in Europe.

He called for a “spirit of co-operation” if Britain and the EU are to work together.

His intervention came after the EU sought to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines through the Irish border to the UK by invoking emergency clauses in the Brexit divorce deal.

However, after fierce condemnation from London, Belfast, and Dublin, the EU performed a swift U-turn.

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