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Michel Barnier: why is the EU’s former Brexit chief negotiator sounding like a Eurosceptic?

·15 min read

My Secret Brexit Diary, Michel Barnier’s blow-by-blow account of the Brexit negotiations, is at times quite a dry and technical read. But every now and then it offers glorious moments of comic relief. There is, for example, the day that Lord Digby Jones and a jovial bunch of leave-voting businessmen pitch up optimistically at Barnier’s Brussels office, plonking a patriotic gift-basket on his desk. Running his eye over it, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator spies some cheddar, wine, tea and jam, a book of Shakespeare’s plays and an essay on Winston Churchill’s life and political philosophy. With a smile, Barnier points out that some of the foodstuffs are processed from European products and protected by EU designations of origin. As for Shakespeare and Churchill, one, he suggests, was a very “continental playwright” and the other a “very European British statesman” who backed a united Europe.

This false start is the prelude to some unsuccessful lobbying by the British delegation on behalf of the City’s financial services industry. When Barnier bats away demands for full post-Brexit access to European markets, he writes that the mood suddenly turns sour: “Digby Jones dares to say to me: ‘Mr Barnier, your position is contrary to the interests of the economy. You are going to make life even more difficult for the worker in the Ruhr, the single woman in Madrid or the unemployed man in Athens.’” The rhetoric and tone, concludes Barnier in his diary entry for 10 January 2018, was “morally outrageous”; the desired bespoke agreement on financial services never materialises.

This, of course, is the Michel Barnier that “remain Britain” came to know and admire during the four, fractious years of Brexit negotiations. Suave, calm and scrupulously polite, armed with a clear mandate and ferociously on top of his brief, the 70-year-old saw off a shambolic, ever-changing cast of British interlocutors. David Davies, Dominic Raab, David Frost; all tried and failed to extract special treatment for Brexiting Britain. At regular televised briefings, Barnier defended the integrity of the EU single market, free movement and European institutions with the unyielding logic and gritty determination of a seasoned technocrat. For millions of despairing Britons, he epitomised the virtues of a collaborative, rational and wealth-generating political project, on which the United Kingdom was senselessly turning its back.

There is, he agrees, a clear parallel between the discontent of the red wall voters and the gilets jaunes in France

That was then, though. Nine months after a post-Brexit trade deal was dramatically achieved last Christmas Eve, the distinguished, handsome face is instantly recognisable in an early-morning interview ahead of My Secret Brexit Diary’s publication in English; the grey suit and dark blue tie recall the sober sartorial style adopted at those endless press conferences and the professorial, slightly stern manner is the same. But the politics of Michel Barnier have, it is fair to say, moved on. Tough controls on immigration; a restricted role for European courts and a new politics of patriotism: these are the eyebrow-raising new demands of the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator.

The transformation has taken place as Barnier embarks upon perhaps the last great challenge of a political career that began at the age of 14 in 1965, when he cut his teeth campaigning for Charles de Gaulle against François Mitterrand. Having recently announced his intention to run for the French presidency in elections to be held next spring, Barnier hopes to be the chosen candidate for the centre-right party Les Républicains. What he describes as the “lessons of Brexit” are central to his pitch. But not quite in the way his erstwhile admirers might have expected.

“The first chapter of my book is entitled ‘A warning’,” says Barnier, holding up an elegant yellow-jacketed French edition. “People in the bubble of Brussels think they are always right,” he says. “They don’t want to listen. They don’t want to change anything. This is precisely the way to provoke more Brexits elsewhere in Europe. I’m not a federalist. I’ve never been a federalist. I’m a Gaullist and I’m still on the same track – a patriot and a European. And I’m a European in addition to being a patriot and not instead of being a patriot. As the former Brexit negotiator and as a French politician I will draw the lessons of Brexit, OK?”

If Barnier sounds testy, it may be because he has endured a difficult month. At a hustings in the southern city of Nimes, he expounded on what the lessons of Brexit might be, delivering a series of proposals that were greeted with disbelief by former colleagues in Brussels. The restoration of sovereign powers to the French state was the theme. In certain areas, he said, France should no longer be subject to the rulings of the European court of justice or the European court of human rights. French influence in Europe needed to be reasserted, in the face of an unacceptable level of German domination. Perhaps most strikingly, he would hold a referendum on migration policy and aim to introduce a moratorium on all immigration, including family reunions, from outside the EU. A “constitutional shield” would be put in place to allow France to develop its own non-EU immigration policy without interference from the European courts. It all sounded, well, pretty Eurosceptic.

“Michel Barnier is the biggest hypocrite ever born,” was the swift response of Nigel Farage. The veteran Brussels correspondent for the leftwing Libération newspaper, Jean Quatremer, let rip with a blistering attack. “His rallying behind a Frexit that dare not speak its name,” wrote Quatremer, “amounts to a political suicide, given that his European ‘brand’ was his selling point… Having dreamed of being a new Jacques Delors, he has ended up as Boris Johnson.” Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, was just as withering: “He’s destroyed the image that he himself created,” marvelled Beaune, wondering how a supposedly “committed European” could come up with such stuff.

Barnier has no regrets but is clearly angry about the mauling he has received. “One has to keep calm,” he says icily. “I don’t want to comment on specific articles by some journalists who have a kind of obsessive, aggressive agenda against me. I was a European before some of these gentlemen and I will be European after them. I know who I am and I know what I said and I know exactly what I think and I have not changed.”

He is particularly exasperated by suggestions that the Eurosceptic turn has come out of the blue, prompted perhaps by an opportunistic desire to raise his profile in the presidential race. Despite having served as a minister in four administrations going back to the early 1990s, Barnier is probably more famous in Britain than in France, where the Brexit negotiations rarely hit the front pages.

He raps the table in frustration. “I don’t know why people are surprised by what I say, because you can look at each and everyone of my declarations over the past four or five years. From the very beginning I spoke about the consequences of Brexit. I spoke in front of the economic and social affairs committee in Brussels and I’m very sorry that some people in Brussels chose not to listen. There is a kind of arrogance there. We have to respect people and listen to them.”

With young delegates of the Les Republicains party last summer.
With young delegates of the Les Républicains party last summer. Photograph: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP/Getty Images

Barnier still believes, passionately, that Brexit was a terrible mistake, fuelled partly by post-imperial nostalgia and an inability to confront the realities of the present. In the diary, he quotes Hugo Young, the Guardian’s influential commentator on Europe, who wrote in the 1990s that: “Britain has struggled to reconcile the past with the future she could not avoid.” My Secret Brexit Diary opens with a quote from King Lear: “Beat at this gate that let thy folly in/ And thy dear judgement out.” Britain’s departure from the European Union, he says, “was a lose-lose game with no added value for the United Kingdom or the EU. Obviously we regretted it.”

Compounding that historic error with a “Frexit” would therefore be out of the question. But the leave-vote was not just about looking back. Barnier writes in a diary entry on Valentine’s Day in 2018 that Brexit also came about because of a popular sentiment that a global, liberal, open economy was not delivering prosperity and opportunities for large swathes of the population. “British citizens… voted [in the referendum] thinking they were voting against globalisation, against a Europe that did not protect them enough, against a Europe that had deregulated and de-industrialised. The same reasons that so many French voters in Marseille and Picardy vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon [the leader of the hard left France Unbowed party] and Marine Le Pen. We must pay attention to this.”

There is, he agrees, a clear parallel between the disillusionment and discontent among the red wall voters who elected Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done”, and the gilets jaunes movement in France, which launched a nationwide rebellion against a fuel tax rise that morphed into a broader revolt against elites and the metropolitan centres of power. Brexit, in this sense, was a disastrously wrong answer to a legitimate set of questions.

“Many regions in the UK, in France and Belgium and elsewhere have a sense of being abandoned by power; deprived of public services, of industry, of a future. This is what I call a ‘popular’ sentiment, which is not the same thing as populism. Populist politicians are using it for their own purposes, particularly in relation to immigration, but we have to understand it and respond and offer solutions at different levels – at the European, national and regional level.”

The “peremptory” and autocratic style of Emmanuel Macron has not offered such solutions, he suggests, and neither would the confrontational nationalism of Marine Le Pen. Instead Barnier hopes to channel and modernise the statist nationalism of his political hero De Gaulle. His programme calls for a restoration of the “authority of the state”, more public investment, and greater de-centralisation of power. “I want to be the president who embodies respect. There needs to be more respect for parliament, the social partners, the regions and the municipalities. The president should respect the French people and ensure that France is respected, at home and abroad.”

We need to address the status of non-EU people who commit crimes in France and ought to be deported but are not deported

Why, though, does a man named “European of the Year” in 2020 believe that reclaiming sovereignty from the European court of justice and the European court of human rights is part of the answer? And didn’t he spend four years defending the importance of freedom of movement?

“The difference between me and Mr Farage – whose remarks about me were, as usual, a bit ridiculous – is that I am not talking about freedom of movement in Europe. I’m talking about immigration from outside the EU.” Barnier emphasises that his proposed “constitutional shield” will only apply in relation to immigration policy and that non-EU students and legitimate asylum-seekers would be exempt from any ban. But this approach is arguably more radical than the new points system adopted in Brexit Britain. Its polarising, fortress-Europe vision would have heads nodding vigorously in Budapest and Warsaw, where rightwing authoritarian governments have taken a notoriously draconian approach to the issue of non-EU migration.

“We all know that there can be links between some lines of migration and terrorism,” Barnier says, “and we have had some dramatic examples of these links. Certain decisions of the European courts have not been consistent with French security needs. So my proposal is for a referendum to be held in September. The idea would be that parliament sets a quota on immigration every year and a constitutional safeguard would allow France, for a limited period of time, to redraw policies that are not working, and would allow us to push for changes in Europe, as well as with countries of origin.” He cites the case of a Rwandan migrant who confessed to killing a priest in Nantes last month, having been released pending trial for allegedly setting fire to the city’s cathedral last year. “When something doesn’t work we need to change it. We need to address problems such as the status of non-EU people who commit crimes in France and ought to be deported but are not deported.”

Does he accept that this sounds like a French “take back control” agenda, redrawing the balance of powers between France and the EU – albeit this time with the intention of remaining inside the union? “Absolutely. This recalibration between the national and the European levels is what I want to do in France.”

* * *

When he announced last month that he would run for the French presidency, Barnier presented his role as chief Brexit negotiator as a kind of USP. “I’ve decided to run and to be the president of a France that is reconciled with itself, to respect France and to make France respected,” he told the broadcaster, TF1. “I’ve learned something important for our country and it’s that when you know how to respect people and bring them together around the same table, then we succeed.” He retains, he says, the utmost admiration for the senior British civil servants who were his interlocutors over so many months. “They were great people, competent and professional people.”

With the politicians, he says with heavy understatement, “it was a bit different”. He seems to have got on surprisingly well with Boris Johnson. After Barnier caught Covid and there was an outbreak in Whitehall, relations were relaxed enough for Johnson to josh him on the subject saying: “So if I read the papers correctly, it was you who gave us Covid?” “Maybe it was the other way around,” replies Barnier. But he is dismayed by the British government’s refusal to take its legal commitments on the Irish border seriously. “My greatest disappointment came when the UK government threatened to withdraw from their commitments to Ireland with the internal market bill. There was a collapse of trust. Johnson is likable and cordial. But the point is that he is occupying a great office in a great country. He has a responsibility to respect and honour the signature of the UK.”

The measured, admonitory tone is classic Barnier. But, as his presidential campaign has illustrated, the hapless Brexiters - striving in vain to get him to see things their way – did spot something that remainers perhaps didn’t quite get about him: Barnier is not in any way a classic liberal establishment figure. In the diary, he records quickly personalising the drab fifth floor office he is allocated in the European Commission’s headquarters with a photo of the celebrations in 1986, when his home region of Savoie learns it will host the 1992 Winter Olympics. Having run the bid, that was Barnier’s breakthrough moment in French politics; among some members of the Parisian establishment it apparently earned him the rather condescending nickname, “the ski instructor”. There is also in the office a photograph of a private audience with Pope John Paul II, testimony to his Catholic faith. And by the time Nigel Farage shows up in 2018, there is a photograph of General de Gaulle greeting the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on the steps of the Elysée.

Repeatedly, and hamfistedly, the Brexiters tried to build bridges by citing the former French president’s emphasis on the state, on sovereignty and on the grandeur of French nationhood. “What would De Gaulle say about what goes on in Brussels?” challenges Farage in Barnier’s office. Stephen Barclay, who replaced Dominic Raab as secretary of state for exiting the European Union, later tried a similar tactic. David Frost, the point man on negotiations from 2019 to 2021, eagerly told Barnier he was a great admirer of De Gaulle and his belief in a “Europe of Nations”.

Related: The Observer view on Anglo-French relations | Observer editorial

“All these continual references to De Gaulle by Monsieur Barclay and Monsieur Frost!” Barnier wryly recalls. “They were hoping to curry favour but it always seemed very suspect to me.” His diary records the dry response to Farage’s provocation: “It’s hard to know what De Gaulle would say, but I’m convinced that in today’s world he would talk more about the independence of Europe than about national independence. As would Churchill or Adenauer.”

As he mounts an unlikely bid for the French presidency – it seems improbable that he will emerge from a crowded field to be adopted as a candidate by Les Républicains – Barnier has not changed his mind about the importance of a strong Europe.

“What does it mean to be European?” he says. “It means that to cope with some issues and global challenges we cannot be alone. We need a strong Europe to fight climate change, ensure financial stability, control immigration and combat terrorism.” But the ironies of Barnier running a neo-Gaullist campaign on reclaiming sovereignty from the EU, holding a referendum on immigration and denouncing the arrogance of Brussels bureaucrats, are too rich to ignore. Viewed through the lens of Brexit Britain in the traumatic aftermath of 2016, Michel Barnier, the EU Brexit negotiator, appeared to be a consummate technocrat and beacon of liberal values in tumultuous times. In many ways he was. But Michel Barnier, the French politician, has turned out to be an altogether more complicated character than that.

My Secret Brexit Diary is published by Polity Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

• Michel Barnier will be speaking at an online event organised by the LSE European Institute and School of Public Policy, which is open to the public, on Monday 27 September

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