Matthew Lynn

Isn’t it time Michel Barnier retired?

Isn't it time Michel Barnier retired?
Text settings

He took the European Union to the edge of a no-deal Brexit, creating logistical chaos on both sides of the Channel. His high-handedness and patronising manner hardened positions on both sides. And his brinkmanship clearly failed, leading to a far more distant relationship with the UK than might otherwise have been possible. It would be hard to conclude from the wreckage of the last four years that Michel Barnier had been a great success as the man in charge of negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU.

But heck, this is Brussels we are talking about, and you can’t let a little thing like success or failure derail the careers of its chief functionaries (after all, if you started down that track, you might want to start asking where the vaccines are). With Brexit finally concluded, you might think this was the perfect moment for Barnier to sail off into the sunset. Yet that is not what will happen. He has just been appointed a special adviser to the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. He will oversee the ratification of the trade agreement, sticking around at least until he goes back to France to have a run for the presidency.

But hold on. That doesn’t make any sense. In truth, Barnier was not a great success. From the start, he adopted the hardcore Reminer position that if the deal on offer was bad enough the UK would come to its senses and give up on the whole idea of leaving. At times, he seems to have expected to be imminently negotiating our re-accession with Prime Minister Jo Swinson. But that strategy failed and ended up with a far thinner trade deal than would otherwise have been possible.

True, there is some disruption on this side of the channel, but over time there will be just as much on the European mainland as well, especially as the British discover that it is now both easier and cheaper to import food from the rest of the world rather than Europe. After the tense, bad-tempered negotiations of the last four years, and with so much ill-feeling on both sides, surely this would have been the right moment to reset the dial, bury a few hatchets, and make a fresh start.

After all, even with the trade agreement in place, there will still be plenty of issues to sort out, most of which could be settled perfectly amicably with a little goodwill on both sides. That would have been far, far easier with someone else in charge. A fresh face, and perhaps not a French one, could have wiped the slate clean, and started again. 

After all, both sides have a mutual interest in trade flourishing even now the UK is outside the Single Market (and given the scale of the deficit that matters to the EU rather more than to Britain). Instead, it seems that Barnier will be around forever, delivering patronising lectures on social dumping, making dire warnings about regulatory divergence, finger wagging about labour standards, and threatening tariffs every time the UK changes some law or other. And so long as that is true there is little chance of relations with the EU improving — in truth, they will probably get worse.

Written byMatthew Lynn

Matthew Lynn is a financial columnist and author of ‘Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis’ and ‘The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031’