Beware – far right still wants out of the EU, Brexit negotiator Barnier warns

Beware – far right still wants out of the EU, Brexit negotiator Barnier warns |

Leaving the EU remains the far right’s ultimate goal, even if they stay quiet about it ahead of election time, former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told Euractiv in an interview on Tuesday (20 February), warning that the far right has not learned the lessons of Brexit.

‘Frexits’, ‘Nexits’ and ‘Grexits’ may not be explicit demands of the EU’s far-right any longer, but don’t be fooled, Barnier warned: it’s still brewing in the background, even if they’re keeping quiet.

“They know Europeans wouldn’t want that, but deep inside, they have not changed views, and they yearn to turn the EU into some mere international trade union,” he said.

Barnier was the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator-in-chief – heading the infamous ‘Taskforce 50’ – for just over four years, from 2016 to 2021. Prior to taking up that charge, Barnier was a two-time Commissioner, a four-time minister in various French right-wing governments, and even a 2022 Presidential hopeful.

He was appointed as negotiator on the day then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the EU’s Article 50 – formally starting the country’s withdrawal from the bloc – seeing the process through up to the signing of a new Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) on 24 December 2020.

Once deemed by the UK to be “the most dangerous man in Europe” the former technocrat urged time and time again throughout Brexit negotiations that “the clock is ticking”.

Having seen the Brexit implications up close, Barnier says they were “predictable”. Regulatory frictions have returned as the UK left the Single Market, border checks with the EU have slowed down imports and exports, skills shortages have increased, and growth is sluggish.

“It was a strange deal to negotiate,” he said. “For the first time in EU trade policy, we agreed to put regulatory barriers up, not down.”

Beware – far right still wants out of the EU, Brexit negotiator Barnier warns |

Britain delays post-Brexit border checks on EU goods till 2024

The British government will delay imposing full post-Brexit import controls on goods from the European Union by a further three months, it said on Tuesday (29 August), pushing the start date back to January 2024.

EU’s far-right not wanting to learn

“The difficulties the UK is facing aren’t all Brexit-related, but Brexit’s made them worse,” Barnier argued.

‘Global Britain’, the Leave campaign’s promise that exiting from the EU would mean bringing the UK back to the economic and financial centerstage – underpinned by a US trade agreement that never saw the light of day – was no more than a “glorious illusion” now the title of the Frenchman’s written account of the negotiations.

Yet, fast-forward almost nine years from referendum day, and today’s EU far-right movements still want to split the bloc up, he said.

“They’ve not learnt the lessons of Brexit,” Barnier warned, pointing the finger at far-right Dutch pundit and November legislative elections winner Geert Wilders, or Giorgia Meloni’s coalition with EU-sceptic Matteo Salvini.

Days after the Brexit vote back in June 2016, Marine Le Pen – presidential candidate for what was then known as the ‘Front national’, and now President of the Rassemblement National’s parliamentary group – had celebrated the referendum outcome, and the UK’s decision to “get out of servitude”.

“She’s not reneged her views,” Barnier said – only she, alongside EU allies, is not trumpeting about them anymore.

In 2017, Le Pen had vowed to follow suit with the Brits and hold a referendum on ‘belonging to the EU’ – a take that had scared off even her core voter base, fearing economic mayhem, and was removed from the future manifesto.

Keeping quiet on wanting to leave the EU is no more than “electoral opportunism”, the former Commissioner said: “I’d recommend not trusting them when they say they no longer want to leave the EU.”

Beware – far right still wants out of the EU, Brexit negotiator Barnier warns |

France's Attal: You want 'Frexit'? Look at Brexit!

France’s prime minister Gabriel Attal has warned against the risks of a French EU exit if the far-right wins big at the polls, as overwhelming data shows the negative impacts of Brexit on the UK.

European naïvety

Yet London’s unprecedented exit from the bloc – the EU Treaty’s Article 50, ironically penned by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, then-Secretary General of the European Convention, alongside a Brit – has consequences further reaching than just the UK.

As EU polls near, it’s high time the EU too learns its lessons from Brexit, and gets to the core of what made the referendum possible in the first place, so it never happens again, its former negotiator told Euractiv.

Tackling illegal immigration, ramping up Frontex staff, circumventing free-trade agreements to reciprocity and ‘mirror clause’ principles, and building “credible” defence capabilities are examples of what the EU is doing to show it’s not as “naïve” as it used to be, he said.

Barnier, now special advisor to the French conservatives’ Les Républicains on foreign affairs, and managing the party’s relationship with the EU’s centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), has set his mind to ensuring EU institutions continue the work through to the next mandate, all the while “ensuring my political family remains a European family”.

EU decision-making is way too time-consuming, the former Commissioner emphasised, and people “are reminded daily of 30 years’ worth of excessive bureaucracy [and] European naïvety”. It should be the goal of the EPP to get those voters back, before it’s too late and they turn to the far-right, he added.

Moreover, he said, the EPP ought “never, never, never” make any deals with extreme right parties in the European Parliament, as polls show it is set to take a rightward turn out of the June elections.

Conservatives must show “no complacency, no weakness” in saying no to the far-right’s “anti-EU theses”.

Beware – far right still wants out of the EU, Brexit negotiator Barnier warns |

House of Lords EU Affairs chairman: Brexit means UK risks being sidelined in global affairs

The UK faces a “real risk of being sidelined” on global affairs as a result of Brexit, Peter Ricketts, who chairs the House of Lords European Affairs Committee, told EURACTIV in an interview, all the while praising a thaw in the EU-UK relationship.

Ready to be useful

Nor must the EU show complacency as the EU-UK trade deal is up for review in 2025.

“I cannot imagine this renegotiation being anything more than technical in nature,” the former negotiator said.

There’s no room for larger, more political talks, with risks of ‘cherry-picking’ – a term used to suggest the UK could get the good things out of the Single Market, and leave the bad bits behind: “I’ll make sure of that,” he said.

That said, so long as the spirit of the TCA is left untouched, bilateral relationships in some specific policy fields could be improved and expanded.

For example, the UK has a significant role to play in defence. It has leaned closer to the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in past years, and it was the first country to sign a bilateral security deal with Ukraine, back in January 2024.

Barnier said the EU is “ready” to work more closely with the UK on issues as wide as cyber security, defence efforts against Russia’s aggression of Ukraine, intelligence-gathering and anti-terrorism.

The Political Declaration – a show of intent both the UK and the EU signed back in October 2019 as a basis for a future relationship – includes advanced partnership on security and defence, including “research and industrial cooperation”.

Parallel renegotiations on fisheries and electricity trading arrangements are also needed. “[It’s] proved more complex than anticipated,” a March 2023 Commission report on the TCA implementation reads.

Ultimately, Barnier said he has no plan to lead the review’s negotiations, but he’s got plenty in the tank still.

“I’ve memory and I’m not nostalgic,” he said: “I’m always available, ready to be useful.”

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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