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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Geopolitics

A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo

-Analysis-

TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.


After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

commons.wikimedia.org

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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