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Michel Barnier speaks during a news conference after the first week of EU-UK negotiations, in Brussels in this file picture taken on March 5, 2020. — Reuters pic
Michel Barnier speaks during a news conference after the first week of EU-UK negotiations, in Brussels in this file picture taken on March 5, 2020. — Reuters pic

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PARIS, Sept 10 — Right-wing French presidential candidate Michel Barnier, the European Union’s former chief Brexit negotiator, today faced accusations of betraying his EU credentials after calling for France to free itself from European court oversight.

The comments from the former EU commissioner, who landed the high-profile Brexit job in 2016, caused surprise and dismay in Brussels where he has spent most of the latter part of his long career in politics. 

Speaking at an event for his The Republicans (LR) party on Thursday in Nimes, Barnier reiterated his previous idea of introducing a moratorium on immigration, and pledged to introduce new rules to make it more difficult for people to settle permanently in France. 

“We can’t do all of this without getting our judicial independence back, by being permanently threatened by a ruling or judgement from the European Court of Justice and the (European) Convention on Human Rights, or an interpretation from our own judicial institutions,” he told party MPs.

The Luxembourg-based ECJ is the supreme court of the EU in implementing EU law. The European Convention on Human Rights, meanwhile, is enforced by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which is part of the 47-nation Council of Europe.

‘Discredit his work’

In order to claw back France’s “space to manoeuvre”, Barnier said he would organise a referendum if elected, asking voters to approve constitutional changes and the ability of parliament to set immigrant quotas each year.

The speech from the 70-year-old also saw him declare “I don’t really like the concept of European sovereignty” and take aim at “German dominance” in the EU, with him saying “I know what I’m talking about.”

As the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Barnier led talks with Britain over its departure from the European Union, frequently lauding the bloc’s collective power over London’s go-it-alone nationalism.

“These statements discredit the huge work that he accomplished in Brussels as a European commissioner and as the EU’s negotiator on Brexit,” Iratxe Garcia Perez, the head of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European parliament, told AFP.

“One wonders how a statement like that can come from such a committed European,” Clement Beaune, France’s Europe minister who worked closely with Barnier on Brexit, told Politico.

Barnier is currently seen as an outsider in the race to clinch the nomination for the Republicans party behind frontrunners Xavier Bertrand and Valerie Pecresse, but the party is yet to decide how to pick its challenger.

Barnier’s decision to put immigration at the heart of his agenda reflects widespread public concern in the country, and particularly in his party, about immigration and France’s changing demographics.

A poll by the Ipsos group, published on September 7, showed that roughly two in three French people thought there were “too many foreigners in France” while 85 per cent of Republicans’ supporters agreed with the statement. 

Polls currently show pro-EU centrist Macron as a favourite to win the April 2022 election, ahead of anti-immigration far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Macron is yet to declare he is running for a second term, but is widely expected to do so. — AFP

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