Friends, colleagues and enemies of Michel Barnier have all been asking the same question about the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator: Has he lost his cherry-picking mind?
Barnier, the veteran French statesman who won widespread acclaim for preserving EU27 unity throughout the contentious Brexit process, is now a candidate to be the nominee of Les Républicains, his center-right conservative party, for president of France. And on Thursday, at a party event, Barnier set off a firestorm by saying France’s “legal sovereignty” was being “threatened” by the EU, and calling for “a referendum on the question of immigration.”
Barnier had previewed his shift to the right on migration policy last July, but his assertion of France’s sovereignty being impinged on by the Court of Justice of the EU was remarkably jarring, especially because it echoed a central argument made by Brexiteers in pushing for the U.K. to quit the EU.
Stunned reactions quickly began rolling in, especially from France, Brussels and the newly sovereign and global Britain.
“Did he spend too much time with Boris Johnson?” Nathalie Loiseau, a French member of the European Parliament and member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe party, asked on Twitter. Barnier “suggests damaging the law, but just a tiny bit of it?” Loiseau’s lament continued. “It doesn’t look like him.”
In an interview with the Telegraph, Nigel Farage, the Brexit champion and former British member of the European Parliament, called Barnier “the biggest hypocrite ever born.” Hypocrisy, of course, is a matter of some expertise for Farage, who spent years railing angrily against the bloc while earning an EU salary and even after Brexit will collect an EU pension (financed partly by the U.K.) for the rest of his life.
Farage, though, was hardly alone. “This is ironic in the extreme,” Simon Clark, a Tory MP, tweeted. “Barnier preaching the merits of national sovereignty to curb the over-powerful EU and European Court of Human Rights.”
Another Tory MP, Michael Fabricant, was similarly outraged and suggested Barnier was making a case for Frexit — France’s own departure from the EU.
“This is breathtaking! The hypocrisy!” Fabricant tweeted. “The same Michel Barnier who during the #Brexit negotiations tried to belittle the #UK for demanding control over our courts and our borders. Now he wants the same for France. #Frexit?”
Jörg Meuthen, the leader of the populist, far-right Alternative for Germany party in the European Parliament, chimed in with his own droll bit of trolling. Meuthen suggested that Barnier “should join the right-wing Identity and Democracy [faction] as it is something the group has long preached.”
Picking up on Loiseau’s suggestion that Barnier had discovered his inner Brexiteer, Meuthen added, “Most probably, excessive contact with the British people have turned a former convinced European into a reasonable person who respects member states.”
Campaign in need of a jolt
Barnier’s unexpected and much remarked-upon remarks have a certain narrow logic in the context of the French presidential primary campaign, in which Barnier is locked in a fierce battle among five conservative candidates, who are each trying to distinguish themselves in hopes of winning the chance to run against Macron and the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen.
According to recent polls, Barnier, despite his Brexit renown, is toward the back of the pack, behind Xavier Bertrand, a former national minister, and Valérie Pecresse, the current president of the Île-de-France region.
But even some French political insiders who well understand the dynamics of the presidential race said they were dumbfounded by Barnier’s comments, and his attempt to bank hard to the right.
Many French MEPs and others regretted that a man of Barnier’s “caliber” had lost touch with reality and seemed to have acted out of pure political opportunism.
A centrist MEP said her eyes popped open when she saw Barnier’s comments posted on Twitter. “I suddenly remembered the serious, pragmatic and moderate man he was when he was the Financial Services commissioner,” the MEP said.
Another French MEP, who didn’t want to be named, said Barnier’s comments were “evidence of the toxic character of the primaries. There are several candidates who deep down believe in the same things … but are obliged to stand out. It ends up in a sausage fair.”
A European Commission official close to Barnier said the tweet was “rather simplistic.” The official noted that Barnier had made similar — and equally controversial — comments about curtailing immigration back in July, and said that the new statements were merely a rehash of the same.
“He talks of course of the migration issue and the possibility of contravening the rules in terms of family reunification,” the Commission official said. “He already said it in a column published in Figaro at the end of July.”
But Barnier’s remarks on Thursday actually went considerably further in seeming to point out the Court of Justice of the EU as a danger to national sovereignty.
At the party event, Barnier said: “We cannot do all this without having regained our legal sovereignty, being permanently threatened by a ruling or a condemnation at the level of the European Court of Justice or the European Convention on Human Rights, or by an interpretation by our own judicial institutions.
“And this is the reason why … we have chosen to say that we will propose during the first round of the legislative elections the terms of a referendum that will be organized in September next year, with two objectives: that of a parliamentary control on the quotas of immigrants each year and finally that of recovering through a constitutional shield our freedom of maneuver and interpretation on the subjects related to immigration.”
Mention of a referendum alone might have been enough to send pro-EU opponents of Brexit into gyrations of fury and dismay.
But party officials of Les Républicains were so proud and impressed by the speech that they tweeted a large chunk of Barnier’s remarks verbatim, only to delete the tweet within short order.
Barnier himself then followed up with a tweet suggesting the whole matter was overblown. “Let’s keep calm,” he urged.
FRANCE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
Brussels (sort of) reacts
In Brussels, the dismay was palpable, and it was clear that the once-revered chief negotiator had put his reputation and his legacy at risk.
At the Commission’s regular midday news conference, the chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, who is French, invoked two long-standing policies of the spokesperson’s service: not to comment on comments nor to intervene in national election campaigns.
“As you know we never comment on comments from individuals, particularly in the context of a national political debate,” Mamer said.
And yet, Barnier’s remarks clearly amounted to such a dagger in the EU’s blue and yellow heart that Mamer could not help but add his own two eurocents about the role of the CJEU and the EU’s legal authority in the area of asylum and migration.
“Our position on the primacy of EU law is extremely well known and applies to all areas where there is EU legislation,” he said. “And the treaties are extremely clear: Asylum and migration management is a shared competence between the European Union and member states, on which the European Court of Justice has jurisdiction. Common European solutions are needed and this is what the Commission has proposed in the new pact on migration and asylum.”
Continuing his lengthy non-comment, Mamer said: “The Commission does not determine quotas on migration, given that this remains in member states’ competence. And as regards the European Court of Human Rights, this is at the heart of the foundation of post-war Europe and is the guarantor of fundamental rights across our Continent. The European Court of Human Rights guides the principles and values on which the European Union is founded. All member states are parties to the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the European Union is committed to exceeding to the ECHR as provided for in Article 6 of the treaties. So I think that sets our position out extremely clearly.”
If the Commission clearly had little to say on the matter, in other institutions there was no hiding the outrage over what many viewed as a betrayal by the man who spent years chiding the British for wanting to have their cake and eat it too, warning repeatedly that there could be no cherry-picking of benefits and privileges of EU membership while ignoring the obligations of member countries, and insisting again and again on the inviolable rights of the European Union under its treaties.
From the European Parliament, Iratxe García, a Spanish MEP and the leader of the socialist bloc, tweeted that “eminent French people” had “proposed to establish the primacy of EU law to build a peace project in Europe, based on trust and solidarity.” She added: “It’s a pity that Barnier does not believe in it anymore.”
An EU diplomat said that it was obvious Barnier was trying to draw attention to a presidential campaign with seemingly little energy or momentum, and perhaps even less chance of success.
“The guy is irrelevant in France,” the diplomat said. “He is a joke. He needs to somehow position himself and he thought this would help him. It’s not going to bring him anything.”