An arrogant, aloof, wordy, pro-EU centrist drawn from the same narrow elite that has dominated the country for decades. It's not that hard to see how French voters might choose to replace Emmanuel Macron with Michel Barnier. Apart from the fact he is older, his hair is greyer, and his wife is slightly younger, it is quite hard to tell the difference between them.
Even so, the veteran politician has this week launched his candidacy for next year’s presidential election, vying to become the centre-right challenger to the incumbent. Who knows, he might even win. Macron is hardly popular and if any candidate other than Marine Le Pen can make it into the second round they are in with a chance of victory. After all, no French president has been re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002, and there is no reason to imagine the current holder of the office can break that record.
True, it might not make much difference to France either way. Despite some tough rhetoric on immigration and some presumably ironic waffle about reforming the EU, Barnier wouldn’t change anything very much. And yet President Barnier would surely be a disaster for the UK. Why? Because he was the man responsible, on the EU side, for negotiating Britain's departure from the bloc. All through those years, he delivered long, patronising lectures about ‘cherry-picking’ and the ‘integrity’ of the single market, oblivious to the fact that both sides would have to work out a way of getting along somehow once we had left. In the end, his hardline stance meant both sides ended up with a far worse deal than was necessary and an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion that will take years, if not decades, to repair.
The trouble is, Barnier is now committed to that deal. He made it clear that the UK had to be seen to have ‘suffered’ from leaving the EU, even if it means people and companies on the other side of the channel lost out as well. And he is completely locked into the Northern Ireland protocol he negotiated, even though it is clearly unworkable, and will have to be reformed at some stage.
His personal political credibility is tied up in the agreement being stuck to rather than renegotiated, and in the UK suffering as much damage as possible. With a new chancellor in Germany set to be elected next month, you might hope that the EU would soon have a fresh generation of leaders who could move on from Brexit and reset relations with the UK on a more cordial, co-operative path. With President Barnier, if that is what happens, there will be no chance of that — and relations between the two sides will just get worse and worse.