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Michel Barnier’s French Logic

When the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, set out the terms for the UK ‘transition’ after it leaves the EU, there was no mistaking his intent.  The UK will remain under EU law, be governed by the full acquis and be subject to the rules of the Single Market. In short, Britain may be ‘out’ in March 2019, but she will still be nailed down to the EU: subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court, obliged to facilitate continued immigration, accept new laws, and left without the freedom to make her own independent way and forge new trade treaties for business with the world.

For Monsieur Barnier, the battle is one of ‘logic’ as he put it to his press audience on Monday, spelling out the terms.  French logic, he might have added, which was learned throughout his schooling and reinforced as a student at the Paris Business School, ESCP Europe, one of France’s Grandes Écoles. These elite institutions have since the 17th century bred France’s ruling classes for power, to promote the aims – political, hegemonic and economic – of the French state. At them generations have imbibed the logic of its politically centralised and economically dirigiste aims linked to its role as Europe’s dominant power, from the time of the Bourbons and then Napoleon to that of its phoenix-like resurrection from the destruction of the second world war when it bound its onetime German conqueror to continental peace and economic subservience through the European Coal and Steel Community, the progenitor of the EU. 

That vision of French power and destiny has not changed. The young Barnier bought into it when he hoisted his colours to the Gaullist flag, becoming by 27 a member of parliament for the centre right party (today ‘The Republicans’) and by the 1990s a cabinet minister, first for the environment and later for European affairs. Back and forth from Paris to Brussels, a European Commissioner for Regional Policy in the early 2000s, then a minister in Paris – first for foreign affairs, later agriculture; back to Brussels to work with Jose Manuel Barroso, rewriting the constitution for Europe (which French voters rejected) to make it into the Lisbon treaty. Elected an MEP in 2009, he became the EU Commissioner for Internal Market and services the following year under Barroso.

The European project is in Barnier’s blood, as part of France’s post-war national story of security, prosperity and political dominance. That project may not be to the liking of French voters but, as the Lisbon Treaty showed, their votes count for nothing with the close-knit elites. As they have done since the 1950s, they interpret France’s national interests as being bound to the Franco-German project of ever closer European integration under the leadership of the two symbiotic powers.  If the project is to survive the cracks in the east, the economic misery in the south, new life must be breathed into it, through the determination of the French President to overcome the obstacles to ever closer union, whether at home or within the EU’s own borders.

That must mean a Brexit, as President Macron and Mrs Merkel have made clear, in which the UK cannot ‘cherry pick’ or do better outside the EU than she would within. In short, the fragile status quo ante must be preserved after Brexit in so far as it can. The internally directed and protected single market is the glue which holds the EU together. These dirigiste economics have served the political goal of French unity from the 17th century and they will continue to be the glue which binds the EU.

Consequently, for the architects of EU integration, while Britain cannot be prevented from leaving, she can only have free access to the Single Market as an offshore island if bound in return by the rules the EU imposes. Freedom to compete in a free market, trading, liberal economy which the UK could exploit to ‘do better’ must be prevented. And so UK law must remain aligned, if it wants to continue current free trade with the EU – even though why it should be seems strange to some of the most senior international trade lawyers, given that the EU’s trade treaty with Canada, CETA, leaves both parties free and sovereign to make their own laws, forge their own free trade treaties and run their economies their own way.

Our government must now choose the direction of travel, which under international law a transition is required to signal. Is that direction to be what M. Barnier and the EU 27 want for themselves: to be subject to the political and economic arrangements which have served the French State for centuries and now bind the EU together, with integration the ultimate political aim? 

Or is it the divergence signalled by a Brexit, which leaves the country free to make its own laws, free to trade under its own economic and legal system, unbound by the acquis, in short free to diverge so that Britain’s economy and its people can flourish in a world where those who challenge prosper?


Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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