At the end of last year, he saved the prime minister. In 2018, he holds the fate of the whole country in his hands. It's time to pay attention to Michel Barnierby Christine Ockrent / January 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Britons should be aware that Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, doesn’t like to be bounced. He prefers to proceed methodically. He chooses his words carefully and when he speaks, he looks you straight in the eye. But he reddens easily when contradicted and is not the type for making light of absurd situations—he admits he could work a little more on his sense of humour.
Barnier comes from the Alpine département of Savoie, in the French southeast, where hard work is the rule and reticence regarded as a mark of wisdom. His boyhood home was Albertville, a small, grey industrial city on the way to France’s ski resorts, best known for its Beaufort cheese—and for the 1992 Winter Olympics. Barnier, a local MP at the time, managed almost single-handedly to convince both French and foreign Olympic officials that the town was the place for France to display the full splendour of its winter sporting culture. It was a huge success. “Ten years of my life for 16 days of performance!” Barnier recalled to me with a glow of pride.
Just turned 67, he has been involved in French and European politics for some 40 years and has often been underestimated over that time. He isn’t one for bombast, and lacks the sophisticated cynicism that’s rife in Parisian political circles. You might say that he’s a little bit square, even goody-goody, with his daily runs and his fondness for trees (one report suggests Barnier has a habit of kneeling down in front of an ancient oak on his family estate and paying homage to its longevity). When one French diplomat heard back in 1999 that Barnier had been picked as France’s European Commissioner, he exclaimed: “A ski instructor?”
And Barnier has presence—he is tall and handsome in an old-fashioned way. He is also a survivor. Since that first Commission job, he has had two further spells at the top table of French government, including as foreign minister, and then also a rare second term as a Commissioner, taking charge of the mighty internal market brief for four years from 2010. (This role, ominously for the UK perhaps, exposed him to the City of London’s shrill special pleading for regulators to lay off bankers’ bonuses.) He still harbours personal ambitions that the British government would do well to note.