Barnier can’t succeed Juncker if French don’t agree

PARIS — As the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier might seem as well positioned as anyone to become the first French president of the European Commission since Jacques Delors.

The pro-European former foreign minister and two-term commissioner belongs to the powerful European People’s Party parliamentary group. He narrowly lost out to Jean-Claude Juncker for its nomination in 2014. This time around, he has a job championing Europe that includes a campaign-style tour of the 27 countries that will choose the next Commission chief. It’s little wonder he’s been widely considered a front-runner for the position when it comes up for grabs in 2019.

And yet, as he plots his path to the Berlaymont, Barnier finds two serious obstacles standing in his way — and they’re both French.

To secure the EPP’s nomination, Barnier needs to run as the choice of his French conservative party back home, which is unlikely to happen. And his ascent to the presidency would be nearly impossible without the support of French President Emmanuel Macron. And that’s less than a sure bet.

Barnier ran in 2014 against Juncker to become the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat — the party’s “lead candidate” in the European Parliament election and its potential nominee for the Commission presidency. The Frenchman lost gracefully, and it has seemed in recent years that Juncker wants to pay him back.

The current Commission president pulled his former rival out of retirement to give him the job of the top EU Brexit negotiator. And he seems to have anointed him as his preferred successor. But it doesn’t look like this tacit endorsement will be quite enough.

When asked about his 2019 plans, Barnier says he’s focused on Brexit, but his ambition is an open secret in Brussels. He has the credentials for the job, with two stints in Brussels and four stints as a French Cabinet member. He is lauded throughout Europe for his his so-far successful negotiating tactics and his talent at keeping the EU27 united throughout the Brexit talks. And yet, it will take more than encouragements from Brussels and the rest of the bloc to secure the Commission presidency.

Laurent Wauquiez, the arch-conservative head of Barnier’s French party, Les Républicains, is the deadliest difficulty. The youthful leader of the former moderately conservative party has steered it on a hard-right course, with little patience for anything that looks like European integration. In a 2014 book titled “Europe: Everything must change,” Wauquiez even suggests the EU go back to its six original founding members.

As the center of gravity of Les Républicains has moved to the right, Barnier finds himself at odds with the party he joined as a teenager. Indeed, on a scale running from dreamy European integrationist to rabid Euroskeptic, Barnier and Wauquiez stand on opposite ends.

Since Macron’s election, many moderate conservative personalities have left Les Républicains to work with or support the French president. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin all hail from Les Républicains.

On most issues, Barnier is closer to Macron’s La République En Marche than he is to his own party. In the Les Républicains’ presidential primary, Barnier supported his friend Le Maire, who recently joined Macron’s party.

And yet, the French president — who has vowed to destroy his country’s center-left and center-right parties — isn’t keen to champion Barnier as head of the Commission, opined a government official who refused to be quoted because “it’s much too soon” in the process.

Barnier doesn’t look like Macron’s ideal candidate. He will be 68 when the time comes to take on the job, and he’s representative of the “old world” that Macron has vowed to sweep away. He first became a government minister in 1993, when Macron was 15, and even though his views on Europe are well aligned with Macron’s, he does not represent the type of change the French president has in mind.

Still, some think that even taking into account other, non-French obstacles (the man will still have a day job as Brexit negotiator throughout next year, and little time for campaigning), Barnier stands a chance. As could anybody. “Who imagined Macron would become French president a year before the election?” said French conservative MEP Alain Lamassoure. “I wouldn’t speculate now on Juncker’s successor.”

It is conceivable in theory that Macron could push for a Barnier presidency. The French president has stated that he doesn’t favor the Spitzenkandidat system, which he thinks robs national leaders of their treaty-enshrined responsibilities, and EU leaders said at a summit in February that they would not treat the process as “automatic” next year.

But “the idea that Macron absolutely wants a French president for the Commission is debatable at least,” said a top European Commission official. It would not be in Macron’s interest to have a French Commission president who would be suspected to be his puppet, the official speculated. Or, if the opposite proved true, it would give rise to speculations that “the French are divided.”

And then, he added, there’s the ego thing: “For Macron, one French president is enough …”

Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.