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‘Nostalgia Serves No Purpose’: An Interview with Michel Barnier

Jakub Rymkiewicz
Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator on Brexit, Brussels, Belgium, May 2019

Michel Barnier’s greeting is cordial, but with a courtesy that creates a certain distance. He is very careful with language—when he is unsure about the right word to use, he casts a glance at his Irish press officer—as befits the official whom the European Commission appointed to be its chief negotiator with the United Kingdom government after its Brexit referendum in 2016. He is known around Brussels for his dedication to his morning workout at the swimming pool and for his command of the brief, in particular an affection for PowerPoint presentations. In both respects, he appeared in better shape than his British counterparts in the Brexit talks when we met a few days before the European parliamentary elections, which coincided with the resignation of British Prime Minister Theresa May on May 24.

Born in 1951, Michel Barnier joined the French Gaullist party, the RPR, at fifteen. Unlike most high-level French administrators and politicians, Barnier is not a product of the École Nationale d’Administration; in fact, he graduated from the École Supérieure de Commerce in Paris. He first won public recognition in France for coordinating preparations for the 1992 Winter Olympics in the Alpine town of Albertville. He went on to serve as a minister for the environment, and then for European affairs. Later, he became minister for foreign affairs, until losing his job when French voters rejected the European Union’s new Constitutional Treaty in a 2005 referendum. The shock of that result, and a similar one in the Netherlands, might have served as a cautionary tale for Prime Minister David Cameron’s government. (France later accepted a new version of the treaty agreement, after the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, by parliamentary assent.)

A conservative, but certainly not a laissez-faire liberal on economic issues, Barnier was very much in favor of new market regulations after he became European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services in 2010. Barnier introduced more than forty laws tightening financial regulation, cementing his reputation for embodying a classically French, statist approach to business. The Financial Times dubbed him the EU’s “finance tsar,” while the more Euroskeptic Daily Telegraph called him “the most dangerous man in Europe.”

Barnier served twice as a commissioner, but his leadership of the Brexit negotiations has been by far his most high-profile post in Brussels. On the walls of his office hang images of the two figures who have had the greatest impact on him: Charles de Gaulle and Robert Schuman, the latter French politician both an architect of NATO and a founding father of the European Union itself. Barnier himself is thought by many to be a serious future candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.

I met Barnier at his office on the fifth floor of the European Commission headquarters, where we talked about the Brexit negotiations, his vision of European integration, and his views on his future part in the EU.


Michał Matlak: The Guardian recently published a poll saying that more than a half of Europeans believe Europe will collapse within a generation. What makes people think the EU is so fragile?

Michel Barnier: The EU as a community of law, values, peace, and progress is indeed very fragile. Europe has to prove its vitality everyday, especially vis-à-vis the young generations who have no memory of the European wars. There are still very good reasons to stay together; [but] we have to prove that we can still deliver all that.

Do you remember Mr. Cameron? Six years ago, he used a [PowerPoint] slide to explain why it is important to be part of a bigger bloc. Four countries among twenty-eight are now part of the Group of Eight (Britain, France, Italy, and Germany). In 2050, only Germany will be; the role of European countries will be much smaller. If we want to be at the table, to promote our values, to take part in negotiations, we have to remain together. Cameron was not very successful in convincing his fellow Brits, but the point is valid.

It is clear that, especially economically, Europe makes a lot of sense, particularly the single market (if not always the eurozone), but we also see people’s fear of losing their national culture. I read Michel Houellebecq’s speech after he received the Oswald Spengler prize, in which he said that the EU “castrates” European nations. Is there some truth to that?

Not at all! It is exactly the contrary. The EU is a way to create more sovereignty and more power in those fields where our nations have lost power. Nobody prevents Polish people from speaking Polish, French people from speaking French—both national cultures continue to develop. We have to see the world as it is, not as it was. The fact that we speak with one voice on issues of trade or competition makes us a global actor. Otherwise, Europe would turn into a museum.

What, then, are the reasons for this anti-European sentiment? Is it the eruption of populism? Or are there other causes?

Yes, people on the ground feel lost, that they have been abandoned; they feel their cultural identity is in danger. We have to respect these local identities. The more the economy is global, the more people need to be reassured that their roots will be respected.

This is the reason that the EU is so complex. It’s clearly possible to work here in Brussels with more democracy, less bureaucracy, but it will still remain complex—as it [the EU] wants to be united rather than uniform. This [compromise and negotiation] is the price we have to pay. We don’t want to become one nation or one people. There is no ambition to build a distinct and homogeneous federal state. We are twenty-eight, in a few months probably twenty-seven, with twenty-four languages.

General de Gaulle, who remains an important figure to me, said that merging all the peoples of Europe would be like making a purée de marrons (chestnut purée). That doesn’t sound very appealing; so we cannot merge all the nations.

Is de Gaulle’s vision closer to your heart than that of Schuman, whom I also see on your wall?

They are both on my wall because I have always had the dream to reconcile Schuman, de Gaulle, and Monnet. Now is the time to do that. De Gaulle was never a nationalist, even if he had strong national sentiments. He knew that the future belongs to peoples who are at once proud of their heritage and open to the world. That’s why I have always been a Gaullist European.

The British apparently feared they would become a part of a chestnut purée. Could the EU do more to convince them to stay? De Gaulle didn’t really want Britain within the European Community, but most of the European leaders of today, including French ones, want the UK to stay. Jean-Claude Juncker has even said he regrets not intervening.

Yes, Jean-Claude regrets that he did not intervene in the campaign, nothing else. His point in saying that is that he might have been able to correct some of the lies that were told. However, the reasons for Brexit run deeper. We have to take into account the popular sentiment in Britain. For Britain, it’s probably too late, but it’s not too late for other countries where we have exactly the same problems, including my country.

Looking at the causes of Brexit, we also find typically British reasons: the hope for a return to a powerful global Britain, nostalgia for the past—nostalgia serves no purpose in politics. In my country, too, some politicians still prefer to live in the past. But there were, also, people voting for Brexit who simply don’t want to accept rules. Some based in the City of London voted to leave, as they don’t want to accept the Union’s regulations on their trading; they want to speculate freely and the Union doesn’t allow them to do so.

Finally, and most importantly, there are many people who feel abandoned. They feel that the quality of public services, healthcare, transport, is worsening. We must listen to these fears and address them.

What is most likely to happen now with the Brexit negotiations?

It is difficult to give a clear answer. Political developments are hard to predict. There are three options: a deal based on the agreement finalized six months ago; withdrawal without a deal; or no Brexit. It will have to be the choice of the UK. During the last three years, we have delivered what the UK wants: leaving the EU, leaving the single market, leaving the customs union [after the Irish “backstop” is resolved]. Even if we regret their decision profoundly, it is their sovereign decision and we have to respect it.

Is one of those options more likely than the others?

If the UK wants to leave in an orderly manner, this treaty is the only option. If the choice is to leave without a deal—fine. If the choice is to stay in the EU—also fine. But if the choice is still to leave the EU in an orderly manner, this treaty is the only option. This is all that our legal constraints allow.

The biggest problem is, of course, the backstop. Why is that?

What creates problems in Ireland is Brexit, nothing else. Today, the UK and Ireland are part of the same single market, the same customs union. Cooperation between both countries in Northern Ireland is based on the Good Friday Agreement from twenty years ago. The EU plays an important role in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. The EU supported the peace process by providing funding and the economic boost from borderless trade, but also because of the rights that it granted people on both sides as European citizens.

Now we face a huge problem: you cannot leave the EU, the single market, the customs union, and ask for no checks and controls at the same time. There are contradictions in the demands of the Tories. You cannot leave the single market and customs union without introducing border controls. Three types of controls are needed at every external border of the Union. To protect consumers and the EU’s budget, to protect business and stop counterfeiting. It’s not ideological: what is at stake in Ireland is peace and stability. Protection of the single market is important, but only second to peace and stability.

Do you think that a hard border would lead to renewal of the conflict in Northern Ireland?

Yes, it creates a very difficult situation for people. I remember a meeting after the Brexit vote with a group of twenty women working on both sides. Several of the women were crying, worried about their livelihoods; they said, “Help us!”

We have found an agreement. We said that after the withdrawal agreement is accepted, we can immediately start work on a long-term solution for the Irish border. It was a British proposal to build the backstop into a UK-wide solution—to make the whole of the UK (including Northern Ireland) part of a single customs territory until we find a solution. The backstop is insurance, in case we do not find this solution.

How might such a final solution look?

It could be, for example, what we call alternative arrangements: technology, drones, invisible controls. None of these arrangements are operational today.

Why can’t we agree on the alternative arrangements now?

You cannot do it immediately. They [the technologies] must be fully operational. I was the French minister of agriculture—how do you control a single cow or a truck load of pork? You need technology. You need technical infrastructure to do that. And this takes time.

The British wanted us to agree to divide the famous four freedoms—free movement of people, goods, capital, and services—in what was often called cherry-picking. Why can the four freedoms not be divided? Technically, it would be possible, after all.

It’s a question of the fundamental reality of the single market, which is not a supermarket. Freedom of movement for goods, services, capital and, most importantly, freedom of movement for people are fundamental to the single market. The EU is not only an economic project; it’s also a political project. It’s also much more than a free-trade zone. The single market is a social, economic, and legal ecosystem, where, between twenty-eight countries, we have decided to live together, adopt the same standards and protection for consumers. Therefore, we cannot agree to cherry-picking.

How will the results of the European elections, especially in the UK, influence the negotiations?

My rule is not to comment on politics in the UK, but I follow events very closely. The debate in Britain is very stimulating. Obviously, this European election will have consequences. British parties will have to draw conclusions. It is a paradox that a country that is leaving is sending MEPs to Strasbourg, but it is also a fundamental right of British citizens to vote and be represented. We cannot play with this right.

Once this agreement is accepted, when will the negotiations on future agreements start?

Immediately. We are ready. We are waiting. The negotiations on the future are much more interesting than the divorce negotiations. We want the UK to remain our partner, friend, and ally. So we have to think about our relationship in a constructive way.

If the Commission president were to ask you to lead these negotiations, would you accept the offer?

(Laughs). We will see. In any case, it will be for the Commission to decide. I just have the ambition to remain useful.

And if the EU’s leaders offered you the job of Commission president?

That’s not a question for today. I can only restate: I always tried in my life to be useful. And I will continue that. We’ll see where I could be most useful.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Barnier greeting then British Prime Minster Theresa May at the European Council leaders’ recent summit, Brussels, March 23, 2018