Michel Barnier seems to have ruffled as many feathers in France with his latest comments on immigration as he did in Britain during his stint as EU Brexit negotiator. Positioning himself to run as the rightwing candidate in next year’s presidential elections, Barnier told a TV interviewer that he wanted to suspend immigration to France from outside the EU, including family reunions, for three to five years.
Immigration, he suggested, was linked to terrorism and was a threat to the stability of French society. He also called for talks with other members of the Schengen group (the 26 European countries that have abolished all passport controls at their mutual borders) to strengthen the EU’s external borders.
Barnier’s remarks caused outrage. But, shocking though they were, the comments are an extreme version of actual EU policy. Politicians of all hues have accepted that freedom of movement inside Europe requires the tightening of restrictions against non-Europeans. “Fortress Europe” is the price of Schengen. As the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, noted in 2016, his hardline anti-immigration stance, “once condemned, despised, looked down upon and treated with contempt”, is now the EU’s “jointly held position”.
Barnier took the inner logic of that immigration policy and pushed it further than most mainstream politicians have so far been willing to go to demonstrate he is best placed to outflank far-right Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections. It is another example of an observation I made last month about Danish immigration policy: when politicians engage in a race to the bottom, they soon find there is no bottom. They just keep on racing down until they lose all moral bearings.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist