Often seen as serious to the point of greyness, former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has surprised many with his incendiary comments on immigration. So what lies behind them?
He seemed to be everything Brexiteers disliked about the EU. A serious-minded bureaucrat steeped in the smooth workings of Europe’s capitals and chancelleries and adept at relentlessly channelling the orthodoxies of Brussels.
But freed from his job as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier has been showing a quite different side. Indeed, his recent incendiary comments that France should suspend immigration or face an “explosion”, are the sorts of remark more expected from those who have been denouncing him over the last five years.
So what is going on with? Like many who make eye-catching public statements, Barnier currently has a book out: The Great Illusion: the Secret Brexit Diary.
It certainly does much to buttress his reputation as a sober, solid, earnest negotiator who was up against a more shambolic British team. Throughout the book Barnier never fails to express astonishment at the British attempts to, rather than be prepared for the negotiations, simply wing it.
There is perhaps an instinctive European tendency to despair at the Brexit vote, rather than attempt to probe for reasons behind it. In common with many Europeans – and Remainers – the focus is instead on the “childish” attitude of British politicians.
But its not all about the Brits (the book is already out in France, but not published in the UK until much later this year). Barnier’s real focus is closer to home – and this is the context in which his immigration comments should be seen.
Early on, in a foreword entitled “A Warning”, Barnier – who was and is a man of the right, and first won election to public office at the age of 22 – makes an obvious nod toward Charles de Gaulle and his reflections on “a certain idea of France”.
Barnier tells the reader he has always had “a certain idea of Europe”, but that this has never stood in the way of his French patriotism. And that is the point: Europe is a major theme, but in many ways the book is about France, with Barnier telegraphing just who is the intended readership.
For all his image as a Brussels man, Barnier has never been an ultra-federalist in the manner of, say, his friend Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who represented the EU parliament in the Brexit negotiations.
Instead, he favours the ‘federation of nation states’ approach. This is what has run like a thread through the whole of Barnier’s political career. It may have been subsumed in the tumult the Brexit talks, but it was always there.
In the book, he notes criticism of the EU and is clearly concerned about the future: “Social anger against a union that does not protect against the excesses of globalisation. A Europe that has for too long advocated deregulation and ultra-liberalism, without sufficiently addressing its social and environmental consequences,” he writes.
Those “social consequences” would seem to include the “explosion” threatened by immigration that he now warns of. His comments on the issue were no off-the-cuff quip. Appearing on French television, he also said benefits needed to be cut at home and Europe’s external borders strengthened.
These are familiar concerns in France, and as well as having a book to sell Barnier may also have his eyes on another objective: high office. Speaking to conservative newsweekly Le Point, he said he was considering a run for the presidency next year and would make his decision later this year. All talk? Maybe. But there are signs he is serious.
In January he was known to be looking for a Paris office from which to run his campaign, while conservative MP Brigitte Kuster told Le Parisien that: “When he starts something, he doesn’t do it as an amateur. It is thought out, there is a rigour”.
His presidential ambitions might seem surprising to some in the UK, but less so in France. Just as his views on Europe were lost in the binary nature of the Brexit negotiations, so too were his personal politics.
Strictly speaking a Gaullist, or at least a member of the succession of Gaullist political parties now called Les Republicains, Barnier first entered the National Assembly in 1978, becoming junior minister for European affairs in 1995, eventually given the thankless task of being EU commissioner for the internal market in 2010 with a brief to clean up the mess left by the casino-like banks.
Between various EU jobs he also had several stints in government in France, including as foreign minister under Jacques Chirac, a tense time not long after the country refused to join the US war on Iraq, and minister for agriculture under Nicolas Sarkozy, a vital role in a state which remains a major food producer.
Throughout his political career he has been seen by his countrymen as lacking charisma (as he has, latterly, by the British). But his recent high profile, as “Mr Brexit”, has helped catapult him back into the national consciousness. Certainly he has made no secret of his national ambitions, saying he planned to “take back my place” in France.
But Barnier is far from alone in wishing to take the reins of his party and lead the fight against the Emmanuel Macron, and, aged 70, he faces younger rivals. Others tipped for the candidacy include Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region and rising star Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern region of Hauts-de-France.
Barnier has now launched his own campaign group called, taking a leaf from the theme of his Brexit diary, ‘Patriot and European’. His recent rhetorical bomb-throwing on immigration may seem out of step with not only his previous pronouncements but also the name of his group, but it would appear some triangulation is at work.
Barnier is among the more centrist, or at least centre-right, forces in Les Republicains, close to former prime minister and previous would-be presidential candidate Alain Juppé. At the same time the party has been diving right, seeking not only to head off Marine Le Pen but also occupy the ground before the incumbent president – who sees that the threat to his second term comes from an emboldened Le Pen rather than the moribund Socialist party – can seize it for himself.
It is making for congested territory in French politics, and whether Barnier, with his tough talk, can carve out a space for himself there remains to be seen. But it is hard to escape the feelings that while Le Pen is not leading the polls she is leading the debate.
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