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POLITICS

Blame UK for end to onward freedom of movement, Barnier tells Brits in France

Michel Barnier, the man tasked with representing the EU in Brexit negotiations, told The Local that the British government's hardline stance was to blame for stripping its citizens of the right to move freely in Europe.

Michel Barnier, the Frenchman behind the EU's Brexit negotiation, says that the UK is to blame for a lack of free movement.
Michel Barnier, the Frenchman behind the EU's Brexit negotiation, says that the UK is to blame for a lack of free movement. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Cartes de séjour, the 90-day rule and increased police checks at the border – the British government is to blame for all of these, according to the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. 

The 70-year-old who lost out in the race to be the presidential candidate for France’s centre-right party said he realised very quickly that freedom of movement for British citizens within the EU was never a real possibility. 

“The British imposed a hard line from the beginning of the negotiations – a total exit from all European institutions. It was not obliged to do this. They wanted to exit from everything definitively: the single market with the liberty to move freely, the customs union and the European Union,” he told The Local. 

“There are two other countries, Iceland and Norway, who are in the single market without being in the European Union. The door was open to these options,” said Barnier.  

Britons who took advantage of freedom of movement to move to France and other EU countries have effectively been “landlocked” by Brexit. They can move home, albeit with obstacles if they have an EU partner, but they cannot move freely to another EU country.

Reciprocity was key in ensuring a smooth transition to the post-Brexit landscape, according to Barnier. The EU offered residency and social rights for Brits living in Europe before December 31st 2020 – and the UK did the same for Europeans. 

But the veteran politician remembers that up until the very end of the negotiation process, he was pushing for greater freedom of movement. 

“I proposed freedom of movement for artists in the negotiations. This is something I spoke about with Elton John. He asked me what we could do. I told him that I had proposed freedom of movement but that the British didn’t want it,” he said. 

“The door is still open for closer relationship with the British in the coming years – I don’t know until when,” said Barnier adding that any change would depend on the “will of the British”.

Barnier hoped to win the primary of France’s traditional conservative party to stand as The Republicans’ candidate at next year’s presidential election. He narrowly missed out to Valérie Pécresse. If she becomes the next leader of France, Barnier could feasibly end up serving as a senior minister.

In this scenario, immigrations to France for citizens from non-EU countries would become harder. 

“It will be much less easy because we will hold a referendum next September, which would allow parliament to fix migration quotas every year – like in Canada – for students, family reunification and economic migrants,” said Barnier, seemingly confident of a victory for Pécresse. 

“It will not be zero migration, because that is just a slogan, but there will be quotas.”

Member comments

  1. Can’t blame M Barnier. The UK government mishandled this from day one, with grandstanding, patronising comments and leaks to the press. Naturally the EU decided not to make it easy.
    The citizens of the UK have been punished by an incompetent government.

  2. Perhaps Barnier could explain why for non-resident Brits , Schengen is a single territory and for resident Brits it’s 26 different countries.

    1. This is incorrect. Schengen is only a territory from a tourist travel perspective as this is a tourist visa non EU citizens can apply for. It confers no rights of residency nor implies any freedom to settle. If you are visiting any Schengen country to do business, study or with the intention of immigrating then you need a business visa or one of the very many other types of visa and permit that are available.

      The only one I know of that allows movement between EU countries is the European Blue Card where, after 18 months working for the first company you got the visa for, you can transfer this to another employer in another participating EU country.

    2. As a brit resident in Germany, the Schengen zone feels very much like a single territory.

      If i go to france and stay 100 days then come home no one will ever know or really care

      The lack of passport checks means anyone could choose to overstay the 90 day rule without getting caught

      The only difference is i would lack the right to live or work there

      For British tourists the visa gives you the ability to visit with all the same rights i would have in france, but you would have only those same rights in Germany also. Not the right to live and work in Germany that i have

      Schengen is a specialist concept. When you cross borders without passport checks its easy to feel like its a single territory when its really a group if territories willing to work closely together for mutual benefit without prejudice, bias, or political point scoring.

      If we had dealt with the eu negotiating team like that, we would all have much greater freedoms, and more rights throughout the entire EU, and EEA

  3. Please don’t point the finger a M Barnier – the people responsible, are first and foremost the British PM and the 52%who voted for brexit. Dont you all remember the logo – Save 350,000 pounds per day on the so called battle bus. That was just one example of the british people being misled.

  4. Well said Sal on 08 December. I was staggered at some of the ineffective negotiating postures adopted by UK representatives. If the EU was imperfect in these negotiations, the UK was impressively bad; indeed as results and consequences are showing time after time. And since when is just 52% of those who voted a convincing majority when it equals a convincing minority of those entitled to vote – around 37% wasn’t it!

  5. We would have been completely f**ked over by the Tory government – but luckily EU pushed for a lot of rights for its citizens in U.K. – and Brits in EU got the exact equivalent of that too. Unfortunately freedom of movement didn’t apply here as U.K. is a single country…

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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