John Furbisher: Barnier’s sensational road to Damascus – or rather from Brussels – over the EU and immigration

11 Sep

John Furbisher is Director of Furbisher Media, and a former Head of Media to Conservative MEPs.

The Brussels bubble will be wobbling fit to pop.  At very least, a quantity of confiture must have been spilled from croissants, stalled in mid-air as the breakfast headlines hit home.

“Barnier’s bombshell” – or suchlike. For the EU’s former Brexit negotiator has suggested that France cannot control immigration as an EU member, and needs a “constitutional shield” to disregard European Law and rulings of the European Court of Justice.

Yes, that Michel Barnier.

He was not speaking as a former Commissioner, of course; still less as the man who negotiated the EU’s Brexit deal, but as a potential candidate for the French presidency.

Unfortunately for his former colleagues at the Berlaymont, those three entities live in the same skin. The mouth that spilled the beans (and upset the jam) is the same one that admonished the UK during negotiations for trying to “cherry pick” on EU regulation.

If that mouth were not Barnier’s, the Brussels elite might even now be suggesting that he misspoke, misread or misunderstood.

But anyone who has watched him work close up knows those are not his ways. His every word is measured, weighed and tested for impact before being sent forth to do its job – however calm and languid the delivery.

Speaking at a Les Republicains event in Nime this week, Barnier said that, if elected, he would propose a referendum – fancy that? –  on a so-called “constitutional shield”. The shield would allow France to ignore European law in order to regain “our freedom of manoeuvre and interpretation”.

Crucially, he said this was needed to control immigration – the unspoken obverse being that the current basis of France’s EU membership makes such control impossible.

In a carefully-choreographed Twitter tango, the Republicains party fed out the comments for Barnier to re-tweet personally. “Misspoken….Moi?”

Cue disbelief and angst in corridors of power EU-wide. Apart, perhaps, from those in Poland and Hungary – where the Commission’s threats to impose sanctions over breaches of “rule of law” must suddenly seem more distant and hollow.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for EU affairs, wondered how such words could come from “a committed European”. The European Liberal Forum said Barnier was giving a masterclass on how to destroy your career and legacy.

So has there been a Pauline conversion Chez Barnier? Whether his road went figuratively via Damascus or not, this is certainly some journey for Barnier to make from his lecture to David Cameron about pretending a country can remain in the EU while choosing to disregard part of its rules.

A lecture made in response to a simple request for an emergency brake on freedom of movement in case of a crisis over…err…immigration. Many believe that request, had it been granted by Barnier, would have been quite enough to swing the UK’s own referendum to produce a majority for Remain. Those with no taste for irony will no doubt have looked away before now.

The two positions are entirely at odds. So was Barnier merely playing a role in his stern admonitions to our negotiators, or is the actor in him coming out now, simply to tantalise a French electorate hungry for red meat?

One is tempted to ask for the real Barnier to please stand up.

In doing so, however, we should remember a couple of key points. Firstly, Barnier is a man of the Right. One who might well have been biting his lip as he witnessed first hand the EU’s incapacity and inaction on issues such as immigration.

Secondly, politcial figures sent by their capitals to fill the role of commissioner are obliged to subjugate their national and party interests. The job description requires them to put the EU’s interests ahead of all else. So when they act or speak, they do so for the EU rather than their true selves.

So it is quite possible the real Barnier just did take his stand.