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6 October 2021updated 07 Jun 2023 11:00am

“We have to answer the questions Brexit raised”: Michel Barnier on the EU and why he wants to lead France

The former EU chief Brexit negotiator warns that Europe needs to change before it dies. Will anybody listen?

By Ido Vock

Michel Barnier could not have picked a better week to visit the UK if he tried. As the effects of Brexit are finally felt, with Britain experiencing chronic labour shortages in part due to the end of freedom of movement, the outcomes the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator warned of appear to have happened. Though other European countries are facing some of the same issues as the UK, Barnier emphasised that “in addition to these problems, you have the consequences of Brexit” when we recently met in London.

Barnier’s new book, My Secret Brexit Diary, is an account of his time negotiating with the UK from 2016 to 2021. The tome is hardly a page-turner – entries are replete with mentions of that day’s edition of the Financial Times and filled with technical detail about fishing rights and customs duties – but it is an important account of how the EU comprehensively out-negotiated the UK.

It portrays Barnier as in command of the detail and the EU as having a clear idea of what it wanted from the negotiations from the outset: to maintain the integrity of the single market and to ensure that no country outside of the EU had the same rights and responsibilities as one within the bloc. While the UK government was negotiating with itself, having triggered Article 50 in March 2017 without an agreed plan, Barnier was travelling to the capitals of the EU 27, building consensus and ensuring that member states would not be drawn into bilateral talks with London.

The EU’s canny insistence on “sequenced” negotiations – meaning issues such as citizens’ rights and Britain’s “divorce bill” had to be decided before talks on the future relationship could begin – forced the UK into concession after concession as the clock ran down and the risk of no deal rose.

Barnier, 70, a French politician for more than three decades before he moved to Brussels, is now returning to the domestic political sphere by seeking the nomination of France’s centre-right Republican party for next April’s presidential election. The question is whether he can capitalise on his reputation for effective technocratic management after a decade in Brussels.

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The means by which Barnier chose to reintroduce himself to the voters of his home country have not failed to shock. He has refashioned himself from a consummate Brussels technocrat into a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration radical. His flagship measures are imposing a moratorium on immigration from outside the EU for up to five years, holding a referendum on immigration quotas, and passing laws to allow France to ignore certain rulings of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, the bloc’s highest courts.

The introduction to his book is titled “A warning”. The Brexit vote was a wake-up call for the EU, he told me, raising questions about European citizens’ relationship to Brussels that can no longer be ignored. “We have to answer the questions asked by the British people because although it’s too late for them, it’s not too late for us.”

How, then, would Barnier change the EU? He has four main proposals: less naivety in Europe’s trading relationships; making it harder for non-EU investors to take over some companies in strategic sectors; more common investment, modelled on the EU’s €750bn recovery fund; and a “common migration policy”. At least three would likely require more cooperation at the EU level; none would involve repatriating powers to the member states. It’s a fine manifesto for a politician in the tradition of Europe’s moderate centre right; as a Eurosceptic battle cry it falls flat.

[see also: “Be careful” – Michel Barnier’s post-Brexit warning to the UK]

Indeed, when it comes to extolling the virtues of a united Europe for French power, Barnier – whom Jean-Claude Juncker defeated to become the European People’s Party (EPP) candidate for president of the European Commission in 2014 – speaks fluently and convincingly. Referring to some economic projections that he said showed every European country except Germany falling off the list of the ten largest economies in the world by 2050, he said: “I don’t want my country to be a spectator of its own destiny.”

Only a united Europe can arrest this trend and expect to credibly stand up to the great powers of the 21st century, he argues. “La grande illusion” to which the French title of his book refers is the notion that Britain alone will be strong enough to influence the tides of global affairs rather than be passively dragged around by them. “We need to be together… to be respected by China or the US.”

Barnier is persuasive when he speaks of the benefits of a united Europe. He is less so when he argues for an opt-out from the European courts’ rulings. As he correctly recognises in his book, a union without common rules and enforcement ceases to be a union in any meaningful sense – a principle he sought to uphold in negotiations with the UK.

To some who knew him during his time in Brussels, the sudden Eurosceptic transmutation does not come across as particularly sincere. “These are certainly not the views I have seen articulated by him in the past,” Lucinda Creighton, a former Irish minister for European affairs who served with Barnier as a vice-president of the EPP, the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, told me. “He seems to be playing to a domestic audience in the context of a heated election campaign.”

Nor are voters, for the moment, buying it. Barnier is trailing his main rivals for the Republican party nomination, Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse, in the polls. “I wonder whether, for your presidential run, you are playing the Eurosceptic at the expense of your genuine European convictions,” one caller to a radio show on France Info mused to Barnier.

In common with many of his rivals for the presidency, Barnier is betting that the political winds have changed and that voters are in the mood for anti-immigration radicalism. While Barnier was never the liberal hero some pro-European Brits took him to be during the Brexit negotiations, he will have to answer whether the shift from Brussels technocrat to Eurosceptic firebrand came rather too swiftly.

Barnier’s argument is that the Europe he loves needs to change before it dies. His task over the next months will be to prove that he – the ultimate defender of the EU’s status quo during the Brexit negotiations – is best placed to deliver that message.

“My Secret Brexit Diary” is published by Polity Press

[see also: Éric Zemmour: the “TV-friendly fascist” who thinks he can be France’s next president]

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This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places