The bloc’s former chief Brexit negotiator warned at a conference in France on Friday that the French population is turning against Brussels amid growing “social unrest” in the country.
“We could draw some lessons from Brexit for ourselves. It’s now too late for the UK but not for us,” the pro-EU politician said.
“Let us ask ourselves: why this figure of 52 per cent [in favour of leaving the European Union] in the [Brexit] referendum? 52 per cent of citizens voted against Brussels, against the EU, so much so that they actually ended up leaving the union,” he added.
Barnier, who has recently launched a political faction, signalling a possible presidential bid in the 2022 elections, admitted that the EU’s open-door migration policies could be a main motivating factor for a so-called Frexit movement.
“We can find, not just in the UK, but here in France, in the northern and eastern regions… citizens who want to leave the EU,” he said.
“They say the EU did not respond to legitimate desires of citizens, there is social unrest or anger, one might say, because there’s no protection of external borders, some people say, immigration flows are impacting us… and Europe is also often criticised for its red tape and complexity,” Barnier explained.
His assessment was rejected by France’s Europe Minister, Clément Beaune, who pointed to the EU’s hardline negotiation stance with Britain as a signal of the bloc’s strength.
“Back in 2016 people thought that this was the beginning of the end for Europe, but we have been able to show that we can be agile, that we can react, that we can be consistent in defending our interests in a firm way to defend the greatest European assets – the Single Market and our political unity,” Beaune said.
“These are lessons that we must all keep in mind as Europe is facing more difficulties,” he added.
Barnier’s comments come amid a surge in popularity for the right-wing populist challenger to President Macron, National Rally (RN) leader Marine Le Pen, who has long held eurosceptic positions.
As of late, Le Pen has tempered her stance, now calling for a “Europe of Nations” which would see less influence on individual member-states from eurocrats in Brussels rather than France leaving the bloc altogether.
Le Pen and Macron are currently neck-and-neck in polls for the first round of voting in the French presidential election, with Le Pen actually leading against the French president slightly. Macron still holds an edge in the second round run-off, leading the polls by a margin of 56 per cent to 44 per cent.
The margin in the second round is far closer than in 2016, when Macron defeated Le Pen by 66.1 per cent to 34.6.
Seizing upon the failures of the EU and the Macron government to tackle mass migration to the country, Le Pen has said that for her first act as president she would introduce a national referendum on migration.