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Michel Barnier might be the man. But what’s his plan?

Michel Barnier could become EC president as Manfred Weber candidacy is not gaining steam.

Very few politicians reach celebrity status outside their own countries when it comes to European politics. The language barrier is an obstacle, but it’s not an excuse. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Viktor Orban, Yannis Varoufakis, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini or Theresa May have managed to have their name known by most Europeans, when they take positions about European issues.

It looks like a politician has to be the head of a EU country, or take a provocative anti-European stance to reach to a the five hundred millions of Europeans.

Michel Barnier seems to have managed the tour de force of being someone who counts without heading a government or yelling at the EU. It’s even quite the opposite. He has been discreetly negotiating Brexit for the last 18 months, making few public appearances, and weighing every single word he said.

But his job has de facto turned into a pro-EU campaign. As he toured EU capitals to meet all the 27 governments, his team took also care to advertise for their boss.  His silvery hairs and aristocratic manners enchanted many: he quickly appeared as the wise man in this crazy Brexit drama.

Before the end of the 2019, nearly all EU heads of state had had a warm word for him, whatever their political side. At the last EU Council of 2019, the conclusions of the meeting praised him for his work: a very unusual move.

Then on 2 January Barnier published an op-ed in the French newspaper Le Monde, mentioning a need to “reinvent our world”. The timing and the ambitious title, make this publication look like a political plan, or a message, because if Barnier wants to be a candidate to head the European Commission, he needs the support of Macron. In this text, soon re-published in English and adapted from a speech he gave in November in Brussels, the centre-right leader focuses on challenges such as climate, migration, investment and security, and calls EU nations to stay united to be able to solve them. Then last week he gave an interview to Le Monde, focusing on its job : dealing with Brexit.

Barnier’s op-ed is all very nice, but it is just another pro-European piece of literature. It doesn’t lead to any destination, or suggest any ideas how to get there. Saying that being united rather than divided will solve the environment and economic crises is very much a tautology.

Should we go further in EU integration? Or not? How can we solve climate crisis when EU targets are not compatible with the Paris Agreement? What shall we do with illiberal directions taken by eastern countries like Hungary and Poland? What can we do against the more than 2000 people who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2018, trying to reach the EU?

The French magazine Le Point painted a great portrait of Barnier, calling him the man of the year for 2018.

Keeping all 27 countries united in front of the Brexit challenge has definitely been a huge success for Barnier. But the EU needs fresh ideas to convince voters. They are still waiting for them.

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