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Michel Barnier says he will ‘never yield’ to Brexiteers attempting to ‘destroy’ the EU

Michel Barnier speaks with Marion Van Renterghem in Paris. (Photo by Li Yang/China News Service via Getty Images) - Credit: China News Service via Getty Ima

He has a reputation for calmness, but Brussels’ Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier shows flashes of passion, as he tells compatriot MARION VAN RENTERGHEM what is at stake for the EU, what the chances are of a deal, and where he believes his British counterparts have blundered.

If Michel Barnier didn’t exist, the Brexiteers would have to invent him. Not that they are short of European people to identify as the cause of all their woes, but Monsieur Barnier is a very special one, the perfect enemy to loathe.

First of all, he’s French. A emblem of those revolutionary continental types who worship the welfare state more than business and money, he was named ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’ by the Daily Telegraph and ‘the scourge of the City’ by other media when, as the EU’s internal markets commissioner between 2010 and 2014, he led a push to regulate banks and hedge funds after the 2008 crisis.

Aged 69, he’s now making things worse for himself. To be given the title of the European Union’s ‘head of task force for relations with the UK’ – its chief Brexit negotiator – means literally that he is a special envoy from ‘Devilsland’. Brussels. That hideous entity that not only the British tabloids but even the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, have been deriding for decades.

A married father of three, Barnier likes nothing more than eating a filet of sole with spinach, skiing, biking, drinking wine moderately, having no social life and going to bed early. He’s a hard worker and knows his files. An anti-populist par excellence, an anti show-off, a very old-fashioned politician.

Barnier joined the Gaullist movement when he was 14, later becoming the youngest French MP, aged 27; then a senator; several times a minister and twice a European commissioner. He also jointly organised the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. He has always been serious, honest and measured, a centrist to such an extent that he’s boring. ‘Soft,’ former president Nicolas Sarkozy said of him.

Nigel Farage once said of Herman Van Rompuy, another member of the Brussels ‘elite’ that he had ‘the charisma of a damp rag’. The mild Barnier might not excite quite such a poisonous reaction from Farage, but neither is he obviously endowed in charisma. And he is the last politician you would hear such abuse from. ‘I’ve won all my elections without criticising any of my opponents,’ he’s proud to say.

When the Brexit negotiations first got under way, he recommended to his British counterparts that they ‘tell the truth, explain what Brexit means, and the consequences for Britain to leave the European Union’. The two sides have not been playing the same game though.

Those negotiations began in March 2017, after then European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker picked him to lead the EU’s team. At the time, Barnier thought he was embarking on a two year mission.

In the end, it took him far longer, with hundreds of experts on each side, to struggle and finalise what was only the first part of the divorce. Now is the final stretch, to decide what will happen after the end of the transition period, on December 31.

At the moment, negotiations are stalled. Brexiteers accuse Barnier of being the cause of this impasse – it was even suggested by some that he was also responsible for infecting Boris Johnson with coronavirus.

Barnier is what stands between Britain and its oven-made beautiful Brexit, his critics say. That is not how things seem from the other side. Johnson and the Brexit gang had promised that Britain could leave the EU without a cost. They said the UK could have its cake and eat it, take back control and yet maintain full access to the single market.

They underestimated the extent to which the volume of UK trade that is exported to the EU is larger than the proportion going the other way, giving the EU a stronger position in talks.

They also underestimated how much the remaining 27 member states would remain united and mandate their negotiator for one very simple mission: to protect the single market. That means respecting its rules. If you decide you’re out, you’re not in. As simple as that.

Also they underestimated Michel Barnier himself. A man of the mountains, he was born in a small town near Grenoble and built his political career in the Alpine region of Savoie. ‘I’m a highlander’ he is fond of saying. His opposite numbers in the Brexit negotiations ought to know that those from that area have a reputation for persistence, if not stubbornness.

Like many French politicians of his generation, he didn’t speak English when he started in politics. He has been working hard to learn it since his first appointment as a commissioner in Brussels (in 1999, when he was given responsibility for regional policy).

He still might not be entirely comfortable giving speeches in English but he is now in command of that ‘global’ language, sprinkling his French with phrases like ‘level playing field’, ‘damage limitations’, ‘timetables’ and ‘backstop’, as well as some other technical stuff so common in English that we hardly know how to name them in our own language.

Not only has he paid tribute to the British by learning English, but he’s not as averse to Anglo-Saxon thinking as some might assume. He has always been a more Anglophile Gaullist than de Gaulle himself used to be. Unlike the former French president, who stood against the UK’s entry into Europe, Barnier advocated for it and even voted for it, in 1973 – the first time he ever cast a ballot.

Gaullist, progressive, European and Anglophile… that is Michel Barnier. ‘I’m not one of those who will say ‘good riddance’ as the British are leaving us,’ he told me. ‘The EU won’t be stronger nor better without them. Of course I accept their vote and decision, but I deeply regret it.’

I’d never observed Barnier lose his temper in politics. Yet Brexit has pushed him close. A source told the Guardian he had been ‘a bit flabbergasted’ at the UK’s recent attempt to reopen a chapter of the Brexit divorce treaty that was ratified last year, after three years of talks.

At a news conference after the latest round at the end of August, he said he was ‘disappointed and concerned’ because British negotiators had ‘not shown any willingness to move forward’.

When I met with him a few days later, he said more bluntly that the negotiations were currently at a dead-end and that chances of a post-Brexit deal between the UK and the EU were now very slim.

‘The British have an unrealistic attitude,’ he said. At the end of July, he gave his British counterpart David Frost a timetable: for a deal to be ratified by national and European parliaments by December 31, it has to be completed before the end of October. ‘It is very short.’

In the public interview I conducted with him at the Medef (a major French business trade union) conference last week he was straightforward and very clear: ‘The mission I am given by the 27 member states is to protect the interests, businesses and citizens in the single market, which is our major asset in the current global competition.

‘The single market is one of the rare reasons why president Trump and Xi Jinping respect us. It is an ecosystem that we have been building for 60 years – with the British.

‘It is made of common standards, common regulation, common supervision – may be a bit excessive sometimes – common jurisdiction – the European Court of Justice. That is the single market. I can do many favours in these negotiations but the British must understand that we won’t do any deal that would weaken the single market.

‘If the British want to send us their products with no tariffs and no quotas, they must respect the rules of the game, a level playing field.’

He identified what he considered a ‘bad tactic’ of the part of the UK team. ‘The British used a tactic – and to me it is a bad tactic: postpone to the end the issues that matter most for the Europeans: One, fisheries; two, [a] supervision [structure to ensure enforcement]; and three, the level playing field. They didn’t want to cope with them until now and they are the three issues that are currently stalled.’

And what if they remain stalled? I asked. What would be the consequences of a no-deal?

‘In any case, there will now be controls at the borders. But in case of a no-deal, we’ll put tariffs and quotas on their products. And they will put tariffs and quotas on ours. That is why Brexit has no sense… Brexit is a lose-lose situation and we are in a situation of damage limitation anyhow. In four years, nobody has ever been able to show me the advantages of Brexit. Nobody.’

Then how can you explain, I asked him, how Johnson, seemingly keeps acting against the interests of his own country?

‘Boris Johnson has around him some people who have an ideological idea of what their country should be,’ he replied. Dominic Cummings, for instance, I asked?

‘No comment… We have some people in France, too, who look at their country in a rear-view mirror with a kind of nostalgia.’

He added, referring to a slide displayed to the audience during our interview which showed the future of the G8 countries: ‘We can’t but realize that it is better to stand in solidarity than in solitude… In the world today, nobody’s waiting for us. There are currently four European countries in the G8. Every four years, one is slipping out. In 2050, Germany will the only one to stay in. If we stay together in the EU, France remains, the UK is out.

‘Without the EU, in the world as it is, we are screwed. If we are not together, in and with the single market as a common basis, we’ll become inexorably the Americans’ and Chinese’ subcontractors. I haven’t been involved in politics to be a subcontractor.’

At the end of the interview, Barnier told an interesting story. Some day after the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage asked to visit him at his office in Brussels.

‘I welcomed him at some length,’ Barnier says, ‘and I asked him: ‘Mr Farage, now that you won the referendum on Brexit, how do you see the future relations between the UK and the EU ?’ Farage answered in a smile: ‘But Mr Barnier, when Brexit happens, the EU will no longer exist!”

At this point in our interview, Barnier turned to the audience. On his face, normally so calm, was passion. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he declared solemnly, ‘we need to stay together to defend our interests in the world, without shame. Neither the Chinese, nor the Russians, nor the Americans have shame when defending theirs.’

As a conclusion, he added: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, you have to know: these people – not all the Brexiteers, not all those who voted Brexit, but these people – they want to destroy us.

‘They want us to blow up from the inside. I tell you, as long as I have strength, we’ll stand in their way. We won’t yield an inch to those people. Never.’

He received a standing ovation.

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