Michel Barnier illustrated by Tim McDonagh

Who is Michel Barnier? Meet the EU's chief Brexit negotiator

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 Barnier
January 22, 2018

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.

Barnier is a self-proclaimed outsider—and by the cliquey standards of French politics, he is not wrong. He never went to the École nationale d’administration, France’s elite civil service university, instead attending a Parisian business school. He cherishes his provincial roots: his father was a craftsman who specialised in leather and textiles, and the young Michel was a scout and choirboy.

If that sounds like it might encourage a conservative frame of mind, that is exactly what it did. Barnier came of age in the shadow of the seismic events of 1968, turning 18 in 1969—the year that President Charles de Gaulle, by then an out-of-touch figure in the eyes of the nation’s youth, finally resigned. But young Barnier didn’t become a soixante-huitard; he became a Gaullist. He first won local office at 22, and in 1978—at just 27—he won a seat on the National Assembly as the Savoie representative, making him the youngest parliamentarian in France. He was, and still is, a moderate representing the main centre-right Gaullist party.

The 1980s and early 1990s in France were dominated by the Socialist President François Mitterrand. Barnier’s tribe was mostly out in the cold, and it would have been hard for him to achieve more on the national stage than securing the Winter Olympics in his backyard. But in 1993, the Right won a landslide in the French Assembly, and Barnier became the minister for the environment, under the briefly-popular premier Édouard Balladur. He backed Balladur in his failed run at the Élysée, but it did him no harm with the eventual winner of the presidency—an older Gaullist, Jacques Chirac—who installed Barnier as Secretary of State for European Affairs in 1995.

This was his first exposure to political life in Brussels, which proved a natural fit—temperamentally, as well as politically. It might not occur to a moderate like Barnier to think of himself as having an ideological core, but if he has one, the European ideal is a big part of it. As a Gaullist, he is not a staunch “federalist” in the manner of his friend Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister now representing the EU parliament in the Brexit negotiations. Instead, he has always favoured the “federation of nation states” imagined by Jacques Delors, the French President of the Commission from 1985 to 1995. This form of Europeanism has run like a thread through the whole of Barnier’s career; he’s never wavered, even though French conservatism, like British, is regularly convulsed by the European question.

The style of European politics—quiet diplomacy and tactful concession—attracts Barnier. He is adept at nurturing the relationships on which such horse-trading relies. Whereas most French politicians see Brussels as a place of exile—where you might get a second chance if your domestic political career has faltered—Barnier never has. His no-nonsense style has served him well there; rather better, in fact, than it might have done if he had stayed at home.

When we met in Paris in December, immediately after he had wrapped up stage one of the Brexit talks, he put his pro-European cards on the table: “I have been a committed European ever since the time at my school in Albertville, when I saw the picture of General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer clutching hands to symbolise the Franco-German reconciliation!”

He’s told the story often; some spot a convenient invention from his time as Europe minister. But I had the sense he felt real strain in the wrangling over Brexit.He told me: “The first time I ever voted was for the referendum on the UK’s entry into the Common Market,” the 1972 plebiscite that paved the way for Britain’s entry the following year. Needless to say, the young Barnier was on the Pompidou government’s winning side.

Four decades later, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker enlisted him as an adviser, the role he held when, in December 2015, he landed the Brexit job.

“What a bore! Even when he talks Brexit!”

So what does the character of this man tell us about the way he will negotiate with Brexiting Britain? On the plus side, the UK can probably rely on him not doing anything too impulsive. If his career is unblemished by scandal or hot-headedness, his home life has been similarly steady. Barnier has been married to Isabelle Altmayer, a former lawyer now involved in charity work, since 1982;  the couple have three children. One French former senior civil servant who worked with Barnier in Brussels a few years ago told me: “He may not be bursting with ideas, but the few he has tend to come to something.” Most politicians would settle for that summary verdict, but the same official added a kicker: “Still—what a bore! Even when he talks Brexit!”

Europe, then, has entrusted its most fraught assignment—managing the unprecedented departure of a member state—to a safe pair of hands. And he is backed by a “dream team” of some 30 carefully picked staffers. He has the highly-regarded German deputy, Sabine Weyand, who was previously deputy director-general in the Commission’s trade department. Many of the others on the team are French. While other participants in Brexit negotiations have leaked to the press, Team Barnier takes particular pride in remaining watertight.

While Britain can probably count against Barnier doing anything rash, it shouldn’t bank on being able to exploit a misstep. He is comfortable at navigating complexity, sitting as he does “at the centre of several circles: 27 governments, 27 national parliaments, the European parliament and of course the Commission.” He told me: “All I’ve experienced as an MP, as a minister, as a European MP and a commissioner is proving to be useful.”

Even with all his experience, for Barnier, “the Brexit negotiation is unique and extraordinary—it is the first time an EU member state has decided to leave. Furthermore, I’ll do everything for it to remain unique.”

British Eurosceptics may hear the threat of a “punishment beating” in that. Although that is hardly the phrase that comes to mind in talking to Barnier, I pushed him on the point He replied: “The mandate given to me by President Juncker and the platform I have proposed have nothing to do with punishment. You won’t find a single word about revenge or undue hardship in my statements, or in those of the French president and other heads of state. We all regret the UK departure. But no one should be surprised that the French, German, Dutch, Italian and other leaders are anxious that the European project is not harmed or weakened by the UK’s departure.”

Instead of meting out vengeance, he sees himself as doing “a technical job,” albeit an intensely political one. For much of last year, Barnier was lambasted by Eurosceptic newspapers and Brexit Secretary David Davis for refusing to allow trade talks to proceed until progress was made on three preliminary issues—the divorce bill, Northern Ireland and the rights of EU citizens. Barnier, however, was unbending: “The British had the idea they could mingle everything: the price for past commitments, the financial issue and the future. We said, ‘first we settle the past, like in any separation, then we start talking about the future.’”

It worked. He was never cowed by British posturing and in the end, it was not Brussels but London that had to give ground on all three points. Barnier is insistent however, that it isn’t—and never was—about point-scoring or grandstanding. “The process, complex as it is, has meant we’ve had to take things in the right order… I’ve always tried to approach the discussions without emotion, in a rational way, sticking to facts and figures.”

“There are many British politicians who seem to be discovering the consequences of their own decision”

It is, however, no secret that the European Brexit negotiating team has been surprised, and at times appalled, by the lack of British preparation. The divisions within Theresa May’s cabinet can hardly be missed. Surely, I asked, Barnier must have felt something—bemusement, confusion or fear—about what was happening in London? He became more reticent. “My attitude has been to listen, to watch and to follow the British political debate, which is quite stimulating. But I don’t make any comment. I don’t want to pass judgment. It is not my role.”

But surely, I pushed him, he must have wondered why the consequences of a “Leave” vote were not explained to the citizens of a great parliamentary democracy—one that we on the continent have always admired. And why is it, I asked him, that so many insubstantial figures crowd the British debate? Refusing to take the bait, he sighed. “I believe in democracy,” he said, “and in the virtues, at times, of a referendum. But in this case, there are many British politicians who seem to be discovering the consequences of their own decision…”

Barnier is keeping judiciously above the fray. He has met with stubborn Remainers, like Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke. But he has also met with influential figures who seem less clear about their position, most notably Jeremy Corbyn; and in January he even met Nigel Farage. Whatever his own preferences, Barnier refuses to be drawn on the possibility of any sudden swerve in the Brexit process, still less an outright reversal.

He spoke admiringly, and diplomatically, of May’s personal “endurance,” without any obvious awareness of his own role in that. Had Barnier and Juncker not advised the European Council to allow talks to proceed to the second phase in December, her premiership would have been in peril.

When we turned to what would happen next, his words implied that Britain’s problems are only beginning: “The new parallel talks [on how negotiations on the future relationship will be structured] will probably start in March. The actual negotiations on the future relationship will only begin once the UK leaves the EU.”

What about the transition that is supposed to avoid a “cliff-edge” Brexit, I asked. “There is no mandate to discuss the transition period yet, but it will be short. Prime Minister May has stated that it should take two years. It cannot last longer for legal reasons.” That sounds like it could mean unwelcome inflexibility for Britain, now that even Davis is talking about transition lasting “about” two years. Much of Whitehall is banking on (or praying for) something much longer.

“The most difficult part remains to be done”

A short transition and a delayed start to the substantive talks does not sound like a good combination for Britain. So where does Barnier think the UK is heading? I was keen to know, but our discussion was almost over; he was preparing to address the Notre Europe/Jacques Delors Foundation’s annual dinner.

Well known for his penchant for graphics, he pulled out two coloured diagrams printed on either side of a piece of A4 and smiled. One side showed the various ways in which third party states co-operate with the EU: from Norway to Canada and Turkey. On the other side were projections by consultancy firm PwC of the world’s big economies. By 2050, the EU27 would be the fourth largest economy in the world, after China, India and the US. The UK would not feature.

“The most difficult part remains to be done,” Barnier told me. “It is also probably the most interesting. But the British have to understand it cannot be business as usual. We are ready to start working with the government on the three axes it has indicated: exit from the Union, exit from the single market, exit from the customs union. But the clock is ticking. The deadline of 29th March 2019 is their own doing. They have to realise there won’t be any cherry-picking.”

The mild-mannered man began to flash a little steel. “We won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes—mixing, for instance, the advantages of the Norwegian model, membership of the single market, with the simple requirements of the Canadian one. No way… They have to face the consequences of their own decision. There are points and issues that are not open to discussion.”

If Barnier was suddenly sounding much harder, that reflects the great fear on the EU side: that the UK will threaten to undercut its erstwhile partners by scrapping social, consumer or environmental regulations. Indeed, some British cabinet members have called for such blackmail tactics. If that were to happen, there could never be a deal between Britain and the EU27; negotiations would surely collapse.

Barnier will not be drawn on such a doomsday scenario—but then he doesn’t have to. Unlike the UK, he has that ticking clock on his side. “What matters,” he says, “is the time actually needed to negotiate our future relations. Any change in the nature or the goals of this negotiation can only be decided by the 27 EU members + 1.”

How hard is it going to be to keep all those parties together? “The 27 know it is in their interests to remain closely united, just as they have clearly been in the first phase. And they will remain so.” The chief negotiator has been spending a lot of his time touring European capitals, meeting government and parliamentary officials. He has also talked to consumer associations and youth organisations, trying to foster a pan-European unity of purpose that extends beyond government offices, and reaches into civil society.

“Brexit requires unity, we need to cultivate it and I am working hard at it. But unity should not only be about defensive goals, like Brexit. It has to serve a positive, proactive agenda, which is what President Emmanuel Macron, [Angela] Merkel, other European leaders and of course Juncker are intent on proposing.”

Even though Barnier is now in his late sixties and doing a singularly demanding job, there has been a great deal of speculation that he harbours other ambitions. When I asked about the future, he riffed on the “many huge challenges in Europe: refugees, migration, terrorism, economic and geopolitical competition.” Brexit is one more challenge, he added, although it has “also increased the collective awareness of our responsibilities. Europe has to bring answers to its citizens. We need to reform and re-launch the Union.”

Despite this calculated vagueness, very specific rumours are circulating about what Barnier might like to do next. Juncker has indicated that he will not seek another term as Commission president in 2019, which creates a tempting vacancy. Last time Barnier applied for the job, in 2014, he missed out, lacking crucial support from Paris. Since then, despite his own political background, he has been careful to position himself close to President Macron—raising fears among some that Brexit negotiations are being conducted to a French tempo.

“I am grateful of course for [Macron’s] European engagement,” Barnier told me. “He’s the first French president to be so active, so convincing on these issues since François Mitterrand,” a name-check that reveals how Barnier, too, can transcend the old party divides. As to their closeness, Barnier was unsurprisingly tactful: “I consult with him as I do with other heads of state or government. But make no mistake: I am in charge of the negotiations on behalf of all the 27 member countries and the European Commission. That is my job.”

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit discussions, Barnier’s stock will have risen with his deft handling of the first phase. Even if the next chapter ends in collapse, that would not be seen as his fault. He is a man on the up. Once Brexit is done, we can expect the highlander from Savoie to breathe deeply, to take his time, and—when the moment is right—to strike out on a new path to the summit.