Michel Barnier’s hearing exposes France’s fears over ‘Brexit Britain’s next moves’
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Mr Barnier has played an important role in shaping the future relationship between the EU and Britain. A mere month after the UK voted to leave the bloc, Brussels announced Mr Barnier would be the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. For the 2020 trade talks, Mr Barnier was once again the main negotiator and despite months of tensions, the two sides reached an agreement on Christmas Eve.
His career in Brussels did not end there.
The French politician has now become a special adviser overseeing the ratification of the post-Brexit trade deal, under new arrangements that hand responsibility for implementing the deal to European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič.
Because of his new role, the former negotiator appeared before the French Senate at the end of February.
The session opened with a question to Mr Barnier from the chair of the Senate Commission as to Britain’s frame of mind given their sensitivity over Northern Ireland and their attitude over vaccines.
According to Professor of French History John Keiger, it quickly became clear that the combination of a semi-liberated Mr Barnier, and a distinctly pessimistic French Senate, produced indication of EU and French fears about “Brexit Britain’s next moves”.
He explained: “The French it transpires are seriously concerned that on foreign policy, security and defence their cherished partnership with the UK, based on the 2010 Lancaster House agreements, could be undermined if EU-UK relations deteriorate.
“Barnier worsened the picture stating that the UK insisted on excluding defence and security from any Brexit agreement, much to the EU’s disappointment.
“Although absent from British media, French senators were worried about the impact Brexit border checks were having on French exporting companies and how overzealous controls on UK shell-fish exports might provoke retaliation when Britain ends its grace period.
“But in Jekyll and Hyde mode both Barnier and the Senate were insistent that the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) must be applied fastidiously to guard against the UK becoming a Singapore-on-Thames.”
There is no doubt, Prof Keiger noted, the Commission is gearing up for fastidious monitoring of the withdrawal agreement and the TCA, hence the setting up of two new services in Brussels to oversee that.
They clearly feel they have the UK over a barrel with the Northern Ireland Protocol and Mr Barnier insists that it will be monitored and applied rigorously and not renegotiated.
However, there appears to be a real concern on Mr Barnier’s part that Northern Ireland could easily become politicised against the Commission, as evidenced by the EU’s knee-jerk use of Article 16, which Mr Barnier repeatedly described as “an error”, that went against all his work on Northern Ireland.
The Professor concluded in his piece for Briefings for Britain: “The Barnier hearing indicates how strictly the EU and France will monitor the Brexit agreements, but also where their sensitivities lie.
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“France, of all member states, is the most insistent on rigorous application of the agreements. But one detects trepidation about the consequences, with the UK representing France’s largest trade surplus by far, as well as being its closest military partner.
“Yet things could be so much worse for the UK.
“Imagine Michel Barnier defeating Macron in 2022 to become French President and a defeated Macron taking the traditional route of failed national politicians to Brussels to replace Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission.
“Perhaps that is too pessimistic a thought even in this bicentenary year of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death.
There is indeed mounting speculation Mr Barnier might be mulling a possible bid in next year’s presidential election, as he announced last month he was setting up a political faction under the name “Patriot and European”.
A possible bid by Mr Barnier is being closely watched by Mr Macron’s camp, as he could collect votes from the pro-European, centre-right electorate.
In an exclusive interview with Express.co.uk, though, French MEP Philippe Olivier, who also serves as special adviser to National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, claimed Mr Barnier does not stand a chance.
He said: “Michel Barnier is not even French.
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“He is a Europeanist, but not French.
“He is all the more ridiculous because he thinks that maybe because he has achieved something on a European level this would qualify him to represent something for France.
“He thinks the EU can send a governor here, but he doesn’t realise French people don’t want it.
“French people showed that in 2005 when they voted against the EU constitution in a referendum.”
Mr Olivier added: “In France, presidential elections are a contract between a candidate and the people of France.
“It is a bit like voting for a Queen or a King.
“It is evident that a person who has been sent by an international organisation stands absolutely no chance.”
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