If Michel Barnier is playing to the gallery, his political strategy may very well backfire.
On Thursday, the erstwhile EU Commission official pitched himself firmly to the French right as part of his bid to take Les Républicains into next year’s Presidential elections.
Speaking at an event in Nîmes, Barnier told an audience that he would propose a referendum on a so-called ‘constitutional shield’ that, on immigration issues, would allow the French to avoid the supremacy of the European courts. Barnier said that it was a question for the French of regaining their ‘legal sovereignty’ from the EU. Some may say he is attempting to ‘cherry-pick’ France’s EU membership.
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.
Back in Brussels, many were dismayed by the irony of a former high-profile EU representative, who in one fell swoop, appeared to renounce that indefatigable European zeal that has come to define Commission rhetoric. And Barnier did so before the nameplate had most probably been changed on his Berlaymont office.
It’s an interesting strategy that exposes the reality of Barnier’s political challenge in France: relinquishing over a decade of professional history at the heights of European politics. With the anti-immigration stance appealing to an electorate increasingly enamoured by the hard-line rhetoric of the Le Pen model, Barnier is alienating the supporters of his personal pro-Europeanism that he has built up over a long and varied career in Brussels and Paris.
In the EU capital, in addition to a starring role in the Brexit negotiations, he has also previously been Commissioner for Regional Policy and later as Commission Chief for the Internal Market. As an MEP, he was President of the French delegation of the EPP. In French Politics, the mid-nineties saw Barnier as Minister of European Affairs.
For many, the Eurosceptic stance demonstrated by Barnier this week is a repudiation of his brand of pro-Europeanism, and one that his previous supporters in France may not be able to forgive him for. The situation that presents itself to this demographic of French voters is now that should Barnier, a former high priest of European politics, contract the Republican nomination for the French Presidency campaign, ironically he would not be the pro-European choice on the ballot paper. And what’s more, the rejection of his pro-Europeanism will not be enough to secure the support of those on the Le Pen right, who will take one look at his CV and draw their own conclusions in a fog of frenzied Euroscepticism.
Barnier’s turncoat politics will not play out well for the Presidential hopeful in what could largely be seen as his last throw of the dice for one of the most treasured prizes in European domestic politics. This comes at a time in which the upcoming departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave a leadership vacuum which will need to be filled by a leader brimming with European conviction and ambition. As it stands, it now seems implausible to imagine Barnier playing such a role in the EU Council. A Eurosceptic as one of the most powerful leaders in the EU? What future for the Union, should this possibility ever turn into reality?
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.