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Geopolitics

Michel Barnier: Is The EU's Mr Brexit Set To Become Monsieur EU?

Michel Barnier at the 2014 European People's Party Congress in Dublin, Ireland
Michel Barnier at the 2014 European People's Party Congress in Dublin, Ireland
Mathieu Pollet

PARIS — He looks the part. Michel Barnier, the former French cabinet minister and longtime EU political fixture, could easily be plucked by Hollywood casting agents to play the role of European Commission president.

Whether he gets the job in the coming days is a question too complex for any movie script — or news article. Insiders in Brussels, for example, are now busy debating the risks of abandoning a system that is described only with a virtually untranslatable German word spitzenkandidaten.

Still, If Barnier emerges from the scrum, it would be a fitting culmination for a skilled operator whose most recent posting was as leader of the EU's team negotiating with the UK over the terms of Brexit. French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, is betting that the white-haired Barnier possesses the right mix of diplomatic and technocratic skills to succeed Europe's outgoing top executive Jean-Claude Juncker in what is a crucial position in a particularly shaky political context.

FLASH BIO

Place of Birth: La Tronche, France

Date of Birth: January 9, 1951 (age 68)

Education: He graduated from ESCP Europe business school in 1972, and was a classmate of former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Career: A French Parliament member from 1978 to 1993, he went on to serve as Minister of Environment, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture. He made his mark in Brussels in 1999 when he was appointed European Commissioner for Regional Policy, before moving on in 2010 as European Commission for Internal Market and Services, and finally in 2016 to lead the EU's negotiating team for Brexit.

GAULLIST ROOTS, OLYMPIC HEIGHTS

Barnier knew very early he had politics in his blood. As a 14-year-old high school student, he joined a youth group campaigning for the reelection of French Resistance leader and conservative President Charles de Gaulle — and he did it behind the back of his leftist mother. That Gaullist profile to make French national sovereignty and unity the overriding priority has guided him ever since.

After rising up in regional politics, the dapper young Barnier worked with the legendary skier Jean-Claude Killy to organize 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, the last time the Games were hosted in France before they return to Paris in 2024.

Medal ceremony of the 1992 Olympics — Photo: Wayne77/WikimediaCommons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

A GREEN THUMBS UP

A central focus of Barnier's career has been environmental policy, most notably in 1995 with the passage of what is widely known as the "Barnier law" setting up a legal framework in France for the first time for environmental rights as part of the so-called "precautionary principle" in the lawmaking process.

CHIRAC'S MAN, CITY SCOURGE, MISTER BREXIT

Barnier's diplomatic skills have been tested repeatedly in hostile environments:

  • As France's Foreign Minister, he worked on soothing the French-US relationship after the government of President Jacques Chirac had refused to support the 2003 Iraq war.

  • In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, as EU's internal markets commissioner, he carried regulations on banks, markets and hedge funds which earned him the name of "scourge of the City."

  • And for the past three years, Barnier became the face of the EU for the Brexit-hungry government in London. Paradoxically, perhaps, the unity he was able to secure among the European Union's 27 members in the Brexit negotiations has reinforced the Union. He told the New York Review of Books last month: "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.

Barnier (rt) with his then UK Brexit talks counterpart David Davis — Photo: Tom Nicholson/London News Pictures via ZUMA Wire

AU REVOIR SPITZENKANDIDATEN?

Barnier's Brexit performance has now paved the way for his candidacy as a frontrunner to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, after a not-so-subtle campaign for the job. Five years ago, it was the sometimes clumsy, yet time-tested former Luxembourg Prime Minister to emerge as the lead candidate of the European People's Party, which ended up finishing first in the European Parliament elections. This was how spitzenkandidaten system was supposed to work, after it was introduced in 2013 by the Commission to recommend that European parties introduce a candidate for president, with the leading party gaining the post.

Five years later, following this system, it should be Manfred Weber, Angela Merkel's protégé, who was the lead candidate of the winning party in last month's European elections. But Weber's candidacy quickly fizzled, leaving a handful of contenders, including Barnier and the current EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager of Denmark. These days, spitzenkandidaten or not, what's going to happen in Europe is anyone's guess.

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