Head of the Task Force for Relations with the UK, Michel Barnier speaks in European Parliament on April 27, 2021 – Reuters
Michel Barnier has conceded that Britain’s vaccine success proves that individual states can act faster than the unwieldy European Union, which displayed an “ideological mistrust of public-private partnerships” and has “not yet learned to take risks”.
The former Brexit negotiator, 70, who is bringing out a book on more than four years in the job called La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion) this week, also refused to describe Boris Johnson as a “statesman”, saying it was too early to use such a term for Britain’s “head of government”. In an interview ahead of the book’s launch with France Inter, he was asked whether Britain’s vaccine success was an “extraordinary advert” for Brexit.
The UK is streets ahead of the rest of the bloc in terms of vaccination but the continent is now slowly catching up after a sluggish start.More than half of the UK’s total population of 66.8 million has received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. NHS data up to May 2 shows that of the 49,834,997 jabs given in the UK so far, 34,505, 380 were first doses.
While Mr Barnier said he refused to engage in “one-upmanship” and that it was “too early to draw conclusions” on who had coped best with the Covid crisis around the world, he said: “It’s true that there were faults (on the EU side) at the start.”
“Why? Because we wanted to decide for 27 and not alone. It’s easier to decide alone than 27 above all when you’re not under an EU competency. This is perhaps one of the lessons we should drawn from this crisis,” he told France Inter.
He added: “Perhaps there are issues regarding Europe where we should give back competencies to countries, to regions, to do ‘subsidiarity’ (where national governments decide), and in other areas consolidate competencies.” He said that the EU clearly had an issue with red tape.
“I recognise that there were administrative problems, bureaucracy. There was an almost ideological mistrust of public-private partnerships. We don’t know how to take risks. The British took risks by financing the private sector. The Americans took risks. We don’t know how to do that yet.”
But asked whether it would have been better to allow individual countries more leeway to negotiate vaccine contracts, he said: “Vaccine patriotism makes no sense (for France) as we were unable in the public or private sector to make a French vaccine so were dependent others.
“True, we could have decided alone like the British but it’s not in my view the philosophy of the EU and we would have left by the wayside smaller countries that would have been incapable of negotiating.”
Mr Barnier was then asked to say what he thought of Boris Johnson and whether he saw him as a, “statesman”. The Frenchman studiously avoided the term, preferring to call the Prime Minister a “man of government”.
“He clearly has intelligence, he is quite cordial, warm, very pragmatic. I think he needs a bit more time to demonstrate his qualities as a statesman but he clearly has intelligence as a government man, even if I found some of his comments as foreign minister curious and baroque,” he said. Mr Barnier was asked how he kept calm during years of fraught negotiations.
As a keen mountaineer from the Alps, he said he kept “looking up” with three main things in mind: preserving the interests of the EU, peace in Northern Ireland and “the cooperation we must keep with…the UK (which) is a great country, an ally, a friend and partner”.
In the book, Mr Barnier recounted a “courteous” conversation with Nigel Farage who he asked how he viewed the relationship with the EU after Brexit after the Leave victory. “He replied: ‘After Brexit, the EU will no longer exist.’”
“I knew that Nigel Farage and his far-Right friends wanted to destroy the EU from the inside and I have confirmation today,” he wrote. “These people are in a network, Mr Farage with Ms Le Pen, Mr Salvini… they want to destroy the EU not just from without but from within.”
“We’re not obliged to concede this point to Mr Farage. I want to change things that need changing in the EU but not to give up on the European project, which is, and I say this seriously, vital for us if we don’t want to be dependent and subcontractors to America or China. I don’t want my children’s future to be decided in Washington or Pekin.”
Mr Barnier reiterated warnings that Brexit was an “alarm call” for France, which could face Frexit, and the rest of the EU, if leaders failed to heed public opinion.