Barnier's last throw of the dice

Barnier's last throw of the dice


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Barnier's last throw of the dice

It is July 7, 2016, and a private jet carries a contingent of European Commission officials to the NATO summit in Warsaw. On the plane, Michel Barnier sits alongside current President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The Frenchman is ten months into a new role as special defence advisor to Juncker and is accompanying his colleagues to Poland in order to facilitate the signing of an EU-NATO cooperation agreement.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times' Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

It is a testing time for the alliance. Russia has been increasing its presence along the furthest reaches of Europe’s eastern front, following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has told Parliament that the country should ready itself for a ‘full-scale invasion’ from Russia.

Barnier is humbled with the trust that Juncker has placed in him, having been kept close to the highest tiers of European power. In 2014, he lost out to the former Luxembourg Premier in his bid to become the European People’s Party (EPP) candidate for the Commission Presidency.

At the EPP conference in Dublin that year, Juncker defeated Barnier by 382 votes to 245. The Frenchman had appealed to the right-wing branch of the conservative political spectrum - contracting the support of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz outfit amongst others. It is to that same right-wing cloth that Barnier would later remain faithful. Juncker’s was a broader church and following the 2014 elections, he would go on to lead Europe.

From that point on, the relationship between Juncker and Barnier could have become cold, awkward, distorted, distant. In the end, it didn’t.

Barnier had amassed a wealth of political experience in both Paris and Brussels. He had been Environment Minister and later Secretary of State for European Affairs under Jacques Chirac in the mid-nineties. In Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government he became Foreign Minister in 2004. In the EU capital, Barnier had been a special advisor to Former Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and later went on to become the bloc’s Internal Market Chief.

After the Dublin loss and Juncker’s ensuing success in obtaining the Commission Presidency, Barnier found himself at a crossroads. Paris had veered to the left under President Hollande, and it wasn’t clear how Brussels could accommodate him.

Juncker threw Barnier a bone. To some, the unpaid advisory role may have been regarded as trivial for someone of Barnier’s standing. The Frenchman graciously accepted the post, but in reality, he was biding his time for something more substantial. That ‘something’ was first suggested to him on the Commission-chartered flight to Warsaw.

Less than a month earlier, UK citizens had voted to withdraw from the EU in a landmark referendum. It was as yet unclear how both sides would chart a path forward, but Juncker needed to appoint someone with a formidable political profile to take the reins on behalf of the bloc. On the plane to Poland, Juncker had a lightbulb moment.

As is recounted in Barnier’s recently published Brexit memoirs, La Grande Illusion, Juncker took Barnier out of the earshot of diplomatic advisor Richard Szostak, to pitch the offer.

Barnier was taken aback, considering himself more useful to the French at the national level rather than to the EU in the future Brexit negotiations, both perilous and fraught with political sensitivities as they would later turn out to be.

Despite this, he eyed an opportunity. Perhaps the role may one day bolster his European profile to such an extent as to potentially lead to a coveted leadership role on the world stage. Perhaps, in the long-term, he may be able to obtain the Presidency. Juncker asked Barnier to keep the offer to himself, for the time being.

That evening, the pair stole a few private moments together. Over a glass of beer in their hotel restaurant, they saw France defeat Germany in the semi-finals of the European football championships. Barnier came back to Brussels with a renewed sense of vigour. Later that month, his appointment as the EU’s lead negotiator in the Brexit talks was publicly announced.

By the time I first met Barnier at his Berlaymont offices in 2018, he had settled into the role with ease. There was a Churchill biography on a glass coffee table in the corner of the room, a photo of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville on his wall. The features attested to a contrast in Barnier’s political conscience - a steadfast commitment to ‘the local’ (he had conducted his secondary education at the Lycée Jean-Moulin d 'Albertville), ensnared in his broader, supranational ambitions.

Tenors of European ambition have always trailed Barnier’s political path. I recall a European Parliament hearing in which he was pressed as to his objectives for the 2019 EU elections - would he once more put his name forward to lead the EPP as their potential Spitzenkandidat? The inquirer had probably been optimistic that the Brexit negotiations may have concluded by then. Barnier stayed tight lipped. He knew Brexit was far from over.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and after over four years of turbulent EU-UK negotiations, it is towards his homelands that the Frenchman is gravitating. While he seems to have laid to rest his ambitions for an EU-level Presidency position, he now believes he is well-prepped to compete in next year’s French Presidential elections.

February this year saw Barnier establish a working group inside his Les Republicains party, dubbed the ‘Patriot and European’ faction. He wanted to gauge support for his policies.

The first manifestations of Barnier’s policy stance on key issues were however received badly in France. He came under criticism as part of a recent TV interview in which he pitched the idea of suspending immigration to the country from outside the EU for three to five years, and conflated immigration with certain risks to French society including rising crime and terrorism.

With rhetoric such as this, Barnier is staying loyal to his supporters on the right of the conservative family. He is not however right-wing enough to convince allies of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national to jump ship, and his committed European federalism probably doesn’t help much in this regard either.

This week, pollsters have toyed with the idea of Barnier contracting the Presidential nomination for Les Republicains. Predictions suggest he would fare well neither against Le Pen nor Macron, with rival conservative hopeful Xavier Bertrand standing a better chance.

Barnier’s last throw of the dice could very well be a risky one: should he fail in his French Presidential ambitions, there emerges an impasse in his career trajectory that may prove too laborious to overcome. Perhaps Juncker’s offer all those years ago onboard the Commission flight to Warsaw was a poisoned chalice, rendering him of use for only as long as the Brexit talks were in play. His work in Brussels is now done and there is the chance that his appeal to French conservatives has expired. Perhaps he will return to Albertville. Perhaps he won’t.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times' Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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