Michel et moi: Dealing with the EU's Brexit negotiator
Is Michel Barnier really a dangerous, vain technocrat?
Michel Barnier, the man who, from 1 October, will lead the European Commission’s efforts to negotiate a Brexit Treaty, is probably pretty familiar with being demonised in the British press.
When he started his second stint as a European Commissioner, in 2010, he was described as the “most dangerous man in Europe” by the Daily Telegraph and so today’s “vain technocrat” in the Mail is mild in comparison.
I cannot comment on whether M. Barnier is vain, but as a senior statesman – former Foreign Minister and once talked of as a potential President of the Republic in his native France – he probably has some degree of self-regard: bluntly it is difficult to see how senior figures in government could survive the daily ceremony of being dumped in ordure if they did not.
But technocrat – I think that is very wrong. M. Barnier is politician, perhaps one of the few remaining true Gaullists.
I met the then Commissioner Barnier once – when he was serving his first stint in Brussels as Regional Policy Commissioner (1999 – 2004). My boss, the Secretary of State for Wales, was supposedly lobbying him on behalf of the British government against the European Commission’s policy on regional development funding. The problem at our end was that, my boss was, at the very best, lukewarm about the formal UK policy and didn’t really make much of an effort to hide this from Monsieur le Commissaire.
But nor did we face some Anglophobe deeply hostile to the UK who seized on what was a pretty poor presentation. M. Barnier heard our arguments – however weakly put – with respect and in good humour. In French. The fact that M. Barnier is proud of France, its culture and its achievements should not be mistaken for hostility. Accusations of arrogance cut both ways.
Later, when I was working in the European Parliament, I saw M. Barnier at close quarters once again in that brief period he served there before joining Jacques Chirac’s government. I was particularly struck by the warmth with which other French MEPs greeted him in the corridors – and the equal friendliness of his responses: he is not a grand man draped, as the French would say, in the gold of the Republic, but someone who has been engaged in retail politics since he was 15.
The difficulty for a Britain looking to leave the EU comes from those politics, not from the personality. General De Gaulle vetoed the UK’s application to join the then-EEC and many Gaullists may feel that 23 June was a long-delayed vindication.
Gaullist nationalism is not about simply protecting French national interests – it also is about une certaine idée of Europe.
Picture by: Wiktor Dabkowski/DPA/PA Images