Admittedly, likening the European Union to a college fraternity is risqué even for me, a staunch Europhile. But, like fraternities, aspiring member states “rush” to join, get hazed by a labyrinthine supranational political structure, and ultimately, play up or down their membership depending on both their audience and the bloc’s performance.
The spotlight on the approaching French presidential elections in April 2022 is a reminder of European leaders’ fondness for Euroscepticism when running for national mandates. The latest European figure to capitulate in the run to securing the Republican party nomination, is none other than the head of the EU negotiating team on Brexit, Michel Barnier.
The former EU technocrat has apparently come a long way since becoming notorious for his insistence that the EU must never deviate from its core principles, including “the supremacy of European law and the free movement of people”. Back in March 2020, the first week of post-Brexit trade deal negotiations wrapped up on a sour note, with Barnier warning that the bloc would not commit to a treaty with the UK if it refused to apply the European Convention on Human Rights and respect the sovereignty of the European Court of Justice.
The stunning volte-face of Europe’s former champion was captured on French national television just days ago. At the Republican Party’s third and last televised debate among the party’s nominees to win the presidential bid on December 4th, Barnier attacked everything from “cancel culture” and “wokeism” to gender-inclusive language. The debate itself was predominantly monopolised by immigration and security issues, on which Barnier commented there are “a host of examples of this… power given to minorities to the detriment of national interest and the national narrative”. Barnier also called for a five-year moratorium on non-EU immigration and a legal shield from European courts to protect France.
A right turn that could give you whiplash, if you ask me.
One might theorise that Barnier is just being pragmatic by channelling the French centre-right’s anger and frustrations against the EU and leveraging them to lay down the shortest route to power possible. While Barnier is widely known among European technocrats, and in the UK, he is less well known in France. Euroscepticism, albeit light, might actually prove to be beneficial for Barnier. Olivier Rouquan, of Paris University’s centre for administrative and political sciences, commented that the party’s voters are an “older electorate, [who] know Barnier and resemble him in many ways”. Latest polling by NSPPolls (as reported by The Guardian) show Barnier as Les Républicains’ favourite, and in the presidential running with a 9.0% share of voters.
While party members might find the 70-year-old Alpine hiker and spreadsheet aficionado “stable and reassuring”, this attempt at a student-esque personal reinvention might still not be enough to win him the race.