EU's Chief Brexit Negotiator The Political Ambitions of Michel Barnier

One of the worst kept secrets in Brussels is that Michel Barnier's political star is rising. The EU's chief Brexit negotiator seems interested should higher office become available.
Michel Barnier speaks to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Michel Barnier speaks to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Foto: Francisco Seco/ AP

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, was only supposed to say a few words about the vote in the British House of Commons on Tuesday morning. But then he got to talking about his vision for Europe.

British TV stations were broadcasting live as the tall, 68-year-old man with the silver hair issued what was for him a rather unusual statement. He said the remaining 27 member states must build "on the unity required in the Brexit negotiations," adding that the EU was founded to assert a common sovereignty where "the nation state is not enough." He talked about green technologies, industrial policies and a Europe that protects its citizens.

The fact that Barnier ended his brief performance with a small manifesto was the clearest indication to date that the Brexit negotiator does not see his career ending once the British finally withdraw from the EU.

To be sure, Barnier has been eager to allow the public more insight into his work as Brexit negotiator in part because the EU doesn't want to create the impression that it is even partly to blame for the chaos in London. Yet Barnier is also using his public appearances to present himself as a possible successor to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Barnier is a member of the European People's Party (EPP) and nothing would run more contrary to his values than to publicly stab the party's top candidate, Manfred Weber, in the back. But Barnier's ambitions are one of the worst kept secrets in Brussels. And if Weber isn't able to find a parliamentary majority after European elections, or if he loses the support of the member states, Barnier would hardly have to be asked twice to take his place.

One of Their Own

It was late in the evening by the time exhausted EU officials pushed their way toward the press room at an EU summit last month. Barnier was in a good mood as he leaned against a railing in the Council building, his hair as perfectly kempt as usual. It was like he had just come back from a vacation. "How are you?" he asked, pulling out his smartphone and showing off a photo. His son had sent a picture of his grandchild during the meeting. Barnier was pleased. The ambient hectic didn't seem to phase him.

EU leaders have come to appreciate the relaxed manner in which Barnier has conducted the Brexit negotiations. Barnier has visited many EU countries multiple times, his most recent trip taking him to Poland and Sweden. When he was recently in Berlin, he briefly visited Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the general secretary of Germany's Christian Democratic Union. She can't help him much when it comes to his Brexit talks with the British government, but AKK, as she is known, is widely regarded as a likely successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The good impression left behind by Barnier was like a treasure, the value of which remains to be seen.

Government and party leaders recognize him as one of their own, a person with whom they can work together at eye level. Unlike Weber, Barnier has experience gleaned from several government jobs. He has been a European commissioner and the French foreign minister. He even organized the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville.

One man in particular has been warming up to Barnier, a man who doesn't think much of the concept of lead candidates anyway: French President Emmanuel Macron. According to people familiar with the matter, Macron has asked Barnier twice whether he could see himself running for office for La République En Marche, the political party founded by Macron in 2016. Barnier declined: He has been a member of France's conservative party for decades. He's not about to change sides.

The days in which Macron wanted nothing to do with the old man at the head of the European Commission are apparently over. Politically, there is little separating the two. Barnier, for instance, has long advocated a European industrial policy -- an issue that is also close to Macron's heart.

The Only Winner

And Barnier could likely expect broad support within European Parliament. A large majority of MEPs, to be sure, insist that only someone who has run as a lead candidate should be allowed to become Commission president. But the only reason Barnier didn't seek that position was because Brexit prevented him from doing so. He wanted to become a lead candidate back in 2014, but he lost to Juncker in the EPP primary.

Just three days before Weber was chosen as EPP lead candidate, Barnier presented his ideas on the future of the EU to a larger audience for the first time. It was Nov. 5, 2018, at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. His performance was so far away from the official hullabaloo of the EPP primary that no one could accuse him of wanting to steal Weber's show. At the same time, he made it clear that he also had things to say that did not involve Brexit.

But when it comes to the race for the job as Commission president, Barnier, the political insider, is still an outsider. He knows that Weber will likely win the election -- and that his day will only come if the favored candidate fails to form a coalition in parliament. "Brexit is a lose-lose situation," Barnier said during a recent breakfast in Brussels' European quarter. But that's not entirely true when it comes to the Brexit negotiator himself. If Britain's departure from the EU has a winner, his name is Michel Barnier.

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