A Glorious Illusion
Michel Barnier has written a unique story from the diary he kept whilst he was leader of the European Union’s team negotiating the treaty for the UK’s departure from the EU. His book is a vivid, lively, diplomatic account of the complicated and long-drawn out process of our exit. It reads like history in the making. He writes clearly and with deep knowledge of the way the EU works and how the member countries of the EU interact with each other.
Barnier has been a keen Gaullist republican since his youth, has long had a strong admiration and liking of Britain, though less of some of our politicians. He had been a Minister in French governments and had twice been a European Commissioner and was well qualified to negotiate on behalf of the European Union. He regarded the result of the 2016 Referendum as a total surprise and as a terrible result for both the UK and the EU.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, appointed Barnier as the leader of the negotiating team soon after the Referendum. From the beginning Barnier considered that his principal duties were to maintain the unity of the remaining 27 members of the EU and to preserve the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland.
Attempts by UK to Divide and Conquer
He found during the negotiations that the UK tried hard (but failed) on a number of occasions to split the 27 members by appealing to Paris or Berlin over his head. He also wanted to ensure that the British recognised their responsibility for the continuation of North/South cooperation in Ireland, set up under EU law with EU funding. In a territory as homogeneous as Ireland he considered it unimaginable that there should be two separate regulatory frameworks.
He Kept his ear to the ground
Barnier’s diary shows he diligently interpreted his duties. He regularly visited the Governments of the 27 countries of the EU as well as their MPs, business leaders and trades unions, to hear their views and to explain the progress he was making in the negotiations. Also he met representatives of the European Parliament so as to be transparent with them in his negotiations and to enable him to carry forward his negotiations with domestic support.
Barnier always emphasised that it was the UK who was leaving the EU; it was not a case of the EU wanting the UK to leave. This meant that it was right for the 27 to do all they could to preserve what they had created over many years and not to alter it to meet the demands of the departing UK. He liked to remind the British that the ‘clock is ticking’ when in the negotiations they forgot that the UK had agreed to the timetable at the start of the negotiations.
UK showed total lack of understanding
Barnier and his colleagues were surprised that Theresa May’s and then Johnson’s Governments did not appreciate that the UK had an obligation under Article 50 to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement first and then to negotiate the Treaty of future cooperation. The British Governments tried (and failed) to argue that concluding the first depended on achieving the second.
Barnier and others remarked during the negotiations that the UK side and particularly their politicians showed a remarkable ignorance about the EU, about its origins and its development over 70 years. Sadly this has been a fixed feature of the UK’s relationship with the EU since the 1950s.
Barnier was surprised at Theresa May’s rejection in January 2017 of any partial membership of the EU. He was “astounded” by the number of doors she closed before the negotiations had even begun and by her aiming to secure agreement by the end of the two-year period allowed by Article 50. May put her cards on the table unnecessarily early, doubtless under the ever-present pressure of the Brexiters.
Leaving the EU gave us nothing new
He was also surprised at the prominence given by May and the Brexiters to ‘Global Britain’ as if membership of the EU had prevented us from having global influence and commercial success. After all, membership of the EU had never prevented Germany having global influence and commercial success.
Barnier comments a number of times that the British Government’s difficulties negotiating with the EU were increased by its difficulties in negotiating with its backbenchers. These were amplified by the Government’s reliance on Northern Irish MPs after the election in 2017. The endless debates about the Northern Ireland backstop, which continue today on the Northern Ireland protocol, used up weeks for the UK and for the EU.
Barnier describes in detail the many difficult occasions in 2018 and 2019 when Theresa May’s Government tried hard to convince its own backbenchers that the EU would retain some small legal involvement with the UK in the future. But despite May’s stubborn attempts she failed and was overthrown by Johnson and his Brexiter supporters.
Barnier admired May’s tenacity to implement an exit deal with the EU when she had voted to remain. His view of Johnson was a mixture of liking aspects of his personality but disliking his methods and his views of the UK outside the EU, which Barnier thought was against the UK’s national interests.
“A special place in Hell”
Barnier was sympathetic to Donald Tusk’s remark “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan about how to carry it out safely.” Barnier said the EU was dealing with far too many British political leaders who did not want to face the consequences of their vote for Brexit.
Admiration for Whitehall Civil Servants
The chaotic British political situation in 2018 and 2019, created by the result of the Referendum, undoubtedly damaged our negotiating position with the EU. Throughout, Barnier admired the stoic professionalism of the British civil servants, who loyally tried to create a sense of the views of their difficult political masters.
Farage Foretells Failure of Post-Brexit EU
Barnier recounts two noteworthy conversations with Nigel Farage. He asked Farage, “Now you have got Brexit, how do you see the future relationship between the UK and the EU?” to which Farage replied, “Mr Barnier, after Brexit the EU will no longer exist.” Farage also told him that he had tried to persuade Johnson not to claim that the UK would save £350m per week by leaving the EU which the NHS could use, which Farage knew was untrue.
Barnier has written an important political document which will be of great value for historians and politicians. He has shown how ill-prepared the UK was for the negotiations, despite professional work by civil servants. The answer given by the Referendum result was too simple to solve the many difficulties built into our relationship with the EU. The result for us is severe political and economic self-harm.
My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion by Michel Barnier
Published by Polity Press – Hardback £25
Nigel Beevor is Honorary Secretary of the East Kent European Movement