BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders lavished their Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with praise on Sunday for securing a divorce agreement with Britain, strengthening the Frenchman’s hand should he decide to run for the bloc’s top job next year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskatie were among EU leaders meeting in Brussels to thank the 67-year-old.
In September, Barnier said he would not seek the nomination of the European Parliament’s biggest party, the center-right EPP, to become the new head of the European Commission after Jean-Claude Juncker leaves next year.
The EPP has since picked Manfred Weber, a German ally of Merkel, but many EU diplomats and officials believe Barnier is not out of the race.
“His Brexit job has allowed him to build his profile and credentials. Back then, the negotiations were still running and it was no time to jump ship. But we all know he is thinking about it and in the running,” one EU diplomat said on Sunday.
Juncker, who also commended Barnier for upholding the unity of the 27 states remaining in the EU by not letting Britain divide them, will be replaced next November.
His successor will be picked by the EU’s 27 national leaders who may, but do not have to, follow the European Parliament’s recommendation that will be made following the bloc-wide elections to the joint legislature next May.
Weber’s socialist rival now is Dutchman Frans Timmermans, currently a deputy to Juncker.
Barnier, a pro-EU conservative, has traveled extensively across the bloc since the 2016 Brexit referendum, finding time to meet even the smaller political players, labor unions and industry lobbies.
Both Juncker and Barnier on Sunday also highlighted the role played by the Brexit negotiator’s two top aides - his deputy and veteran trade negotiator, German Sabine Weyand, and France’s Stephanie Riso, an economist with years of service at the European Commission.
Throughout the process, Barnier has made a point of showing particular respect for the European Parliament, which must also approve his Brexit deal for it to take effect before Britain leaves the bloc on March 29, 2019.
While parliament would be upset about the top Commission job going to someone it had not recommended, it would likely oppose Barnier’s candidacy less vehemently than anyone else’s.
A bigger headache for Barnier could be getting the backing of his native France, where he would not be President Emmanuel Macron’s first choice.
Small signs suggest Barnier might be keeping an eye on the job. Earlier in November, he traveled to Helsinki for the EPP congress despite not seeking the party’s recommendation.
In what looked like a campaign stunt in Brussels earlier this month, Barnier gave a broad two-hour speech on issues from climate change and electric cars to combating populism and the challenge posed for Europe by China and the United States under President Donald Trump.
As keynote speaker of a conservative, Catholic Belgian association, he filled the main concert hall of Brussels’ fine arts center. Outside of the room, his book titled “A European Choice”, was on sale.
“Barnier has definitely not ruled himself out. He’s been very good shaking hands all around the EU. We’ll see what happens next,” another EU diplomat said on Sunday.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Potter