Michel Barnier: from Europhile Brexit negotiator to Eurosceptic presidential candidate

Ex-colleagues ‘stunned’ by former EU hardliner’s pitch to replace Emmanuel Macron as French leader

Michel Barnier
(Image credit: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP via Getty Images)

The EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator has shocked the bloc by calling for France to regain its “legal sovereignty” as he campaigns to become his Republican party’s candidate in next year’s presidential elections.

Michel Barnier is facing an “increasingly crowded field on the right” after announcing his presidential ambitions last month, with three other Republican candidates also vying to stand against Emmanuel Macron, said The Guardian. But while Barnier has a relatively low profile in his native country, his recent Eurosceptic rhetoric is winning widespread attention.

Addressing a Republican party rally in the southern city of Nimes yesterday, Barnier told supporters that "we must regain our legal sovereignty so that we are no longer subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights” - a statement that contradicts several positions he took during Brexit negotiations.

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Choirboy to commissioner

Born in La Tronche in the French Alps on 9 January 1951, Barnier was a scout and a choirboy in his youth. He planted his political roots at the age of 14, by becoming an activist for the Gaullist movement.

Barnier graduated from the Ecole de Commerce Superieur de Paris business school in 1972, and then spent several years working as a ministerial advisor. In 1978, he was elected to the National Assembly as a Gaullist representing his home district of Savoie: aged just 27, he was the youngest parliamentarian in France.

His political star began to soar in 1986, when he won a bid to host the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, a city in his constituency.

Barnier went on to fill several high-profile roles as a member of the French and European parliaments, including four stints as a French cabinet minister. He was twice appointed European commissioner but failed to secure the Commission presidency, losing out to Jean-Claude Juncker in a 2014 bid to become the European People’s Party nominee.

‘Hardline’ Brexit negotiator

In 2016, Barnier was appointed to the role of the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator. He was widely considered to be a “safe pair of hands”, thanks to his extensive political experience, said Prospect magazine.

The veteran politician became “integral to the EU's management of Brexit”, said Politico, and won praise from the 27 European leaders for his “ability to create consensus and his methodical approach to the negotiations”.

Barnier was less popular in the UK, however, where he became known for his “hardline stance” in opposing Brexit, said The Times, and for his “firm opposition to Britain ‘cherry-picking’ the terms of its departure”.

He “called for the European Court of Justice to continue to hold sway in the UK and insisted it remained the sole and supreme arbiter of EU law”, added The Telegraph. And in a further blow to Brexiteers, he secured commitments for the UK to remain part of the European Court of Human Rights, “which is not an EU institution, in return for cooperation on extradition” after the split.

Republican hopeful

Former colleagues of Barnier were “stunned” by his “blistering” attack on the power of the European courts, according to The Independent.

As well as championing French sovereignty, Barnier has also called for a five-year moratorium on immigration to France from outside the EU.

“We will propose a referendum in September 2022 on the question of immigration,” he told the Republican rally on Thursday.

However, he later appeared to row back on his hardline stance, tweeting that he did not want France to break entirely free of the European courts, but rather to create a “constitutional shield” to give the country more power over immigration issues.

“Let us keep calm” and “avoid any unnecessary controversy”, he wrote.

All the same, said Politico Brussels Playbook, the “disbelief over Barnier’s anti-European turn was so strong” among his ex-colleagues that some wondered if reports about his call for sovereignty could be the result of a “fake attribution”.

“One wonders how a sentence like that can come from such a committed European,” Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for EU affairs, told the site.

Barnier’s rally comments also “caused a degree of incredulity when they filtered back to Whitehall”, said The Times. An unnamed “government figure” reportedly quipped: “It is good to see that he found our arguments so compelling.”

Tory MP Simon Clarke tweeted that it was “ironic in the extreme” that the former Brexit negotiator was “preaching the merits of national sovereignty to curb the over-powerful EU and European Court of Human Rights”.

Yet Barnier’s “stance has caused little surprise in France”, added The Times. There, “frustration with Brussels is a standard theme for most campaigning politicians, particularly on the right”.

Barnier still faces an uphill struggle to secure the Republican candidacy, though. Despite his new-found Eurosceptism, the front runners in the race - for now, at least - are Xavier Bertrand, the leader of the Hauts-de-France regional council in northern France, and Valerie Pecresse, who heads the Paris region council.

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