Brexit: A grand illusion, Barnier spills the beans

Web Summit, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Michel Barnier has published a book, Brexit: La Grande Illusion detailing the three years of intense UK-EU divorce and trade negotiations in the form of a journal. Only the original French version is available until October, but already there are plenty of translated quotes being published in various British news outlets and on Twitter.

To give you a foretaste of the book, and confirm your suspicions that Brexit has been handled with supreme incompetence by successive and shambolic British governments, we have pulled together quotes from various sources. If you read French, a 57-page extract is available HERE.

Brexit: The grand illusion

To set the scene, here’s a tweet from Georgina Wright, an associate of the Institute for Government and head of the Europe program at Institute Montaigne in Paris. She puts her finger on the fundamental flaw in the government’s approach to the talks right from the beginning.


Barnier on Mrs May

Barnier offers some sympathy for Theresa May, “a courageous, tenacious woman surrounded by a lot of men busy putting their personal interests before those of their country”. He writes that the prime minister “exhausted herself, in a permanent battle with her own ministers and with her parliamentary majority”.


On the UK negotiating strategy

Barnier confesses to being “stupefied” by the Lancaster House speech in which Mrs May laid out the early UK’s red lines. “The number of doors she shut, one after the other”, he says in January 2017. “I am astonished at the way she has revealed her cards … before we have even started negotiating.”

The doors included ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, halting free movement, leaving the single market and customs union and ending EU budget payments: “Have the consequences of these decisions been thought through, measured, discussed? Does she realise this rules out almost all forms of cooperation we have with our partners?”

Even with Johnson in May 2020, Barnier writes of his surprise at the UK’s continued demands for “a simple Canada-type trade deal” while still retaining single market advantages “in innumerable sectors”. He commented that there remains “real incomprehension, in Britain, of the objective, sometimes mechanical consequences of its choices”.

Then came the UK internal market bill (“a clear breach of international law”) and the various “theatrical”, “almost infantile”, “derisory” threats to walk away because of the EU’s level playing field demands, “a psychodrama we could have done without”.

Despite all the provocations the EU remained firm, right up to the end, even as the UK was trying to gain last-minute advantages. The day before signing the trade deal on Christmas Eve 2020, the UK side presented the EU with a legal text which was “peppered with traps, false compromises and backwards steps”, Barnier claimed. It was rejected.

The UK strategy of setting deadlines totally backfired as time ran out.


On Dominic Raab

Barnier says the talks nearly collapsed during a heated meeting with Dominic Raab, whom he described as having an almost “messianic glow”.

In August 2018, Raab had taken over as Brexit secretary from David Davis, who resigned along with Johnson after the Chequers white paper proposed an EU-UK customs arrangement, to avoid a customs border on the Irish Sea and a common rule book. The EU side was not convinced about the plan and rejected it a few weeks later.

Raab tried to threaten what sounds like an ultimatum. Barnier quotes him saying at a meeting around this time, “The question of Ireland must be settled in the context of a larger agreement” to be based on the Chequers plan.

The new Brexit secretary told Barnier: “If you don’t accept these proposals, then it will be no deal and that will be your responsibility, which will bring up borders. Not our [responsibility].”

Barnier replied with a warning of his own:

“Theresa May never dared to make this threat; never, because she knew her responsibility and that of the UK. She recognised: that it is Brexit which creates the problem in Ireland, nothing else.

“We are searching for solutions together. And Dominic, if this threat is the new line of your government, then the negotiations can end immediately. And I will prepare myself in the coming days to inform the European Parliament and Member States. We will regard the failure as being the fault of the UK.”

Michel Barnier speaking to Dominic Raab, August 2018

Raab backed down.

Barnier apparently finds space to mentions Raab’s much-derided remark that he was surprised to find the UK was “particularly dependent upon the Dover-Calais crossing”, writing: “I don’t even want to smile but there is definitely something that is deranged in the British system.”

How true.


On Boris Johnson

Johnson comes across in the quotes as lightweight, ill-informed and detached from reality.

Barnier believed that Johnson had always “treated these negotiations strictly as a domestic matter, and according to the logic of his own Brexit battle”.

He recalls a meeting in 2019 between Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker in a Luxembourg restaurant. When one of the EU team explained to the new British PM the need for customs and other checks on the Irish border, Barnier writes, it was “my impression that he became aware, in that discussion, of a series of technical and legal issues that had not been so clearly explained to him by his own team”.

They probably had been explained, but Johnson simply didn’t understand.

Following the withdrawal agreement being settled, including the Northern Ireland protocol, Barnier was shocked to find Johnson fighting the 2019 election on the basis that there would be no controls on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, something which he said “does not correspond with the contents of the withdrawal agreement”.

When Johnson threatened to tear up the painstakingly negotiated protocol, Barnier wrote that it appeared the UK was pursuing the “madman strategy”, pretending to be ready for a no-deal Brexit in order to force Brussels into concessions.

“By acting in this way, the British government is engaging in no more or less than political piracy,” he wrote. “At that moment, I felt this threat like a betrayal of their word. Clearly, they are ready for anything.”

“I find that the current team in 10 Downing St is not up to the challenges of Brexit nor to the responsibility that is theirs for having wanted Brexit. I simply no longer trust them.”

When the PM decided to suspend talks in mid-October 2020, after taking offence at a statement agreed by EU leaders, Barnier describes it as a “psychodrama orchestrated by London”.

A few months later, at a dinner in December 2020, just days before the trade deal was clinched, Johnson is said to have been inadequately prepared compared with the EU side, and Barnier got the impression the British prime minister, “had not taken the time to go into the detail himself, with his teams” before the meetings.

Well, that cannot have come as a surprise to his own side.

Demonstrating his shaky grasp of the whole negotiation, Johnson at one point in the meeting floated the idea of striking a defence and foreign policy co-operation pact with the EU if a broader future-relationship agreement could not be found.

Barnier had to point out to Johnson that this directly contradicted his own government’s stated position against having these two areas included in the future-relationship talks. Johnson responded by asking his own team: “Who gave that order?” Could it have been the man he had sacked the month before, Dominic Cummings, who was in the habit of keeping the PM in the dark?

The Frenchman went on to note: “The theatrics continue.”


On Lord Frost

It’s clear Mr Barnier didn’t quite hit it off with Lord Frost, who was the third of his British counterparts in the long negotiations.

When Frost took over, Barnier said it came as “a thunderbolt” to hear the UK chief negotiator say that the UK “did not feel bound by the political declaration it had just signed four months ago”. Apparently, “that rather set the scene”.

Neither was he impressed when Frost turned up 45 minutes late for a lunch, apparently without explanation and informed him in a “somewhat arrogant tone” that all the important stuff in their negotiations will be dealt with by the prime minister and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Frost seemed unable to grasp that the EU27 had agreed a mandate and appointed Barnier as chief negotiator. The UK government was continually trying to circumvent the Frenchman by trying to negotiate with EU leaders and, when that failed, with von der Leyen herself.

Barnier says Lord Frost advised Prime Minister Johnson badly on the dynamic of the European Council and “to save face, he therefore creates drama” by temporarily walking away from the negotiation table.

Accused by Frost in a video call of failing to meet the UK’s efforts to reach a deal, Barnier noted that he and his team “looked at one another with incredulity. It was almost childish”.

He added:

“This episode seemed to me to be quite pathetic. We have had many reasons over the course of the past weeks and months, in reaction to one British declaration or posture or the other, to lose our patience and dramatise the talks. But once again we mastered our nerves.”

At another point, he told Lord Frost: “Your negotiating tactics are a masquerade. You are trying to play with us. I won’t put up with it for long. If you want a deal, you will have to move.”

Even on the day the post-Brexit trade deal was signed, their final exchange is said to be “professional and cold”.

However, Barnier thinks he had the final word: “He knows that I know that until the last moment he wanted to bypass me by seeking to open a parallel negotiating line with the cabinet of President Ursula von der Leyen. And he knows it hasn’t been successful.”


On UK civil servants

Barnier is admiring of Britain’s civil servants, Olly Robbins in particular, praising them as “dignified, competent and lucid”. But as talks finally get underway in mid-2017 after May’s disastrous early election gamble, he writes that he does not envy them.


On Brexit supporters in the cabinet

Senior British civil servants, according to Barnier, “have above them a political class who, in part, simply refuse to acknowledge today the direct upshot of the positions they adopted a year ago”. Britain’s strategy, it seemed to him, amounted to “offering little and taking a lot”, plus procrastinating, and cherry picking.

Brexiters Barnier writes, had simply behaved “irresponsibly, with regard to the national interests of their own country. How else could they call on people to make such a serious choice without explaining or detailing to them its consequences?”

The EU’s chief negotiator accuses Mr Johnson and his inner circle of “political piracy” and states that as negotiations were reaching the endgame: “I simply no longer trust them.”


On the future

British “provocations” over the Northern Ireland protocol will continue, he warns, while the UK government, “in an attempt to erase the consequences of the Brexit it provoked, will try to re-enter through the windows the single market whose door it slammed shut. We must be alert to new forms of cherry picking”.

He expects London to soon begin “trying to use its new legislative and regulatory autonomy to give itself, sector by sector, a competitive advantage. Will that competition be free and fair? Will regulatory competition … lead to social, economic, fiscal dumping against Europe? We have tools to respond”.

Barnier’s final warning, however, is to the EU itself. “There are lessons to be drawn from Brexit”, he writes. “There are reasons to listen to the popular feeling that expressed itself then, and continues to express itself in many parts of Europe – and to respond to it. That is going to take time, respect and political courage.”


The Barnier quotes used in this article came from:

The Guardian

The BBC

Tony Connelly at RTE (Twitter)

The Financial Times

The Independent

Politico

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