Few ‘unofficial’ Commission candidates have more burnished CVs than Michel Barnier. Before being appointed as European Chief Negotiator for Brexit in December 2016, Barnier was a seasoned Brussels operative having served as a Commissioner twice and as a Member of the European Parliament.
Before taking on EU roles, Barnier served as the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of State for European Affairs and Minister of the Environment and Way of Life. In Brussels, he was appointed by President Barroso as the Commissioner for Regional Policy (1999–2004) and then as the Commissioner for Internal Market and Services (2010–2014). Barnier was also briefly Minister for Agriculture in President Sarkozy’s government from 2007 to 2009 before stepping down to take up a seat as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the centre right European People’s Party (EPP), the group for which he was Vice-President from 2010 to 2015.
He has also never hidden his ambition to take on the top job in Brussels. The 68 year old Frenchman’s campaign to become Commission President started in 2014 when he tried and failed to win the Spitzenkandidat nomination for the EPP, namely due to Angela Merkel supporting Jean-Claude Juncker instead. This time his campaign never really took off. Firstly, he never secured Emmanuel Macron’s backing. Second, the delays in Brexit talks stood in the way, a process he has committed to seeing through. Ironically, while Brexit has impeded an official run for the EPP candidate nomination, his role as Chief Negotiator may yet prove to be a decisive factor come June, lending him an aura of credibility and respect both in Brussels and in European capitals and allowing him to build rapport with many EU leaders.
With the European Council never formally committing to the Spitzenkandidat process, the appointment of the official candidate of the political group with the most votes in the European elections as President of the Commission cannot be taken for granted. The politics may be shifting in Barnier’s favour: Macron has been openly critical of the process, Finnish PM Juha Sipila in February refuted the idea it was binding on national governments and the third largest group in the Parliament has chosen instead to field seven lead candidates rather than conform to the process.
Of course, significant obstacles still stand in Barnier’s way. He would still need Merkel’s backing, Macron’s consent and for Brexit negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement to have been concluded before the European Elections.
Key policy priorities:
Deepening the Single Market: Ensuring there are no double standards in how citizens and companies across the EU are treated, strengthening the European Monetary Union, bolstering the international role of the euro, ensuring fairer taxation including support for the digital tax initiative and directing massive shared investments toward strategic technologies, particularly in the digital sector.
Industrial policy: Tightening foreign investment screening, promoting European Champions (as such he will likely support Franco-German calls to review EU competition rules in light of the controversial decision to block the Alstom-Siemens merger), reforming public procurement rules (Barnier proposed a reform to the rules in 2012).
A Green Europe: Making Europe a global leader in developing a circular economy and becoming the first fully electric continent by 2030 based on clean transport and electric vehicles.
Security and Migration: Consolidating the EU’s Frontex border-management system and creating common hotspots at the EU’s external borders, harmonising national-level migration and asylum policies, reinforcing the solidarity mechanisms by compensating member states that are more exposed to the effects of migration. Barnier also supports developing a comprehensive partnership with Africa on economic development and managed migration.