Victors get to write history. The European Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has taken advantage of that opportunity in his newly-released La grande illusion. Journal secret du Brexit. Sadly the English translation is not due out until October and my French has decayed too much for me to digest his 500 page account in any reasonable amount of time, even if I could get my hands on a copy. But the English language reviews have picked out many telling anecdotes. Perhaps our readers of the French press will fill in other tidbits.
Barnier’s tome is important not just as a detailed account from one of the few who has a comprehensive view of the talks but also by the fact that he’s flirting with entering the race for President of France next year. By contrast, the UK’s negotiations were afflicted not just by regime change in the form of the ouster of Theresa May but also the revolving door of the Foreign Minister and Brexit Secretary posts. And the drip-drip-drip of bad Brexit news in the UK press isn’t a great backdrop for one of the principals on the British side trying to ‘splain what happened.
We’ll presumably see some reactions in the form of reviews from parties that had contacts with insiders and independent perspectives. I am sure Sir Ivan Rogers, who gave some important speeches while the talks were underway, will be asked to weigh in. Similarly, the RTE’s Tony Connelly’s sources almost certainly included not just Irish but also EU diplomats.
As far as the hot takes are concerned, Barnier appears to hold to his signature measured style, enlivened by sharp and sometimes far from flattering observations. He strives to be fair-minded and more often has kind words to say about his British interlocutors than one would expect, with some notable exceptions as well as possible “damning with faint praise” constructions. However, most UK press outlets seemed to take a bit of umbrage at Barnier depicting the EU as the “adults in the room” compared to the unprepared and unrealistic UK.
Barnier thinks Brexit was nonsensical and Nigel Farage was mendacious.
Michel Barnier: "I do wonder what, until now, has prevented the UK from becoming 'Global Britain', other than its own lack of competitiveness. Germany has become 'Global Germany' while being firmly inside the EU and the eurozone."
Ouch. Mega 🔥. So true. https://t.co/cT4OA4beSa
— Edwin Hayward 🦄 🗡 (@uk_domain_names) May 5, 2021
2/ On his meeting with Nigel Farage, who, he says, told him the £350m Vote Leave bus message was a mistake: “Yes, that was a mistake, I had told Boris not to do it”, Barnier reports Farage as saying. "Could you be more cynical?" he asks
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) May 5, 2021
But Barnier also makes clear that the execution was very poor. At least from the commentary I have seen thus far, Barnier sticks to his own vantage and is silent on some of the UK’s biggest own goals, such as Theresa May’s disastrous decision to call snap elections after she had triggered what was supposed to be a 24 month Article 50 process. Recall that she lost two vital months to campaigning and then instead of striking a crushing blow to Labour, went from a comfortable Tory majority to a knife-edge. That gave the Ultras power they would not have otherwise had, since May now needed their every vote. And that allowed the Ultras to redefine Brexit into a more extreme project than anyone had presented during the referendum.
I recall also being shocked by May presenting her side’s “drop deads” publicly and so early on.
Bernier was “stupefied” by the Lancaster House speech in which Theresa May laid out UK red lines.
“The number of doors she shut, one after the other,” he marvels on 17 January 2017. “I am astonished at the way she has revealed her cards…before we have even started negotiating”
— Dave Keating (@DaveKeating) May 5, 2021
Aside from not understanding negotiations (the EU leaders liked her personally for her evident sincerity but also found her to be emotionally disconnected), May could also have realized that she was boxed in by the Ultras and decided, given the limited runway, there was no point in pretending otherwise.
Barnier on May: ‘a courageous, tenacious woman surrounded by a lot of men busy putting their personal interests before those of their country… who exhausted herself, in a permanent battle with her own ministers and with her parliamentary majority.’ https://t.co/WVijbQAhdn
— B.E.Andre #3Point5🇬🇧🇪🇺🇵🇱🇵🇹🇬🇷🇻🇳🏳️🌈🕷 (@B_E_Andre) May 5, 2021
Barnier, in what seems to be an oblique description, chides Donald Tusk for his cheap ploy of presenting May with a piece of cake (which May as a diabetic could not eat) and then putting up a photo of it on Instagram to make fun of UK cakeism…at her expense. I do recall this was a period when the EU Council was particularly frustrated with May (if I recall correctly, she’d been allowed to make a private presentation and what she said was utterly at odds with where the talks were and what was possible). Oddly Barnier does not appear to have mentioned a Brussels lunch with Theresa May,
Barnier remarkably is polite about the thick as a brick David Davis (see this article in FAZ, The Disastrous Brexit Dinner, for a sanity check), and praised Hillary Benn, Olly Robbins, and Kier Starmer. He respects Johnson as one might a toothy, feral animal. Barnier on Johnson, according to the Guardian:
A baroque personality … From the outset, he appears as he wants to be seen: warm, like a bulldozer, looking to muscle his way through … There is in his eye something authentic, mischievous.
Richard North pulled this tidbit on Johnson’s brief tenure as Foreign Secretary:
As for Johnson, Mr Barnier lets rip as he writes about his resignation as Foreign Secretary. “In truth, Boris Johnson committed so many errors and verbal ‘outbursts’ that his nomination as head of the Foreign Office seemed incongruous in numerous capitals. And I can imagine that this was also the sentiment of many British diplomats”.
Michel Barnier openly wondered whether Boris Johnson was pursuing a “madman strategy” in Brexit negotiations and came close to losing faith in the UK’s ability to keep its word during the gruelling talks, according to his diaries.
The EU’s chief negotiator for more than three years writes that the EU side was dumbfounded by the UK prime minister’s unpredictable approach — which Barnier refers to at one point as “political cinema”…
Barnier writes on September 8 2020: “The team currently in 10 Downing St does not measure up to the stakes and challenges of Brexit . . . I simply no longer have [a feeling of] trust. Well, we need trust to conclude an agreement.”…
Ahead of a dinner in December 2020, Barnier confided to his diary his impression that Britain’s prime minister was inadequately prepared compared with his EU counterparts.
During the meal in Brussels with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and a previous encounter with her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, Barnier had the impression that Johnson “had not taken the time to go into the detail himself, with his teams” before the meetings.
At the December 2020 dinner this impression was underscored when Johnson 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 quickly pointed out to Johnson that this directly contradicted the UK’s stated position against including these two areas in the future-relationship talks. Barnier says Johnson replied by asking his own team: “Who gave that order?” The Frenchman goes on to note: “The theatrics continue.”
BoJo winging it? Who’d have thunk it?
Barnier does not hide his antipathy for Dominic Raab:
14/ Raab added: "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].”
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) May 5, 2021
16/ “We are searching for solutions together. And Dominic, if this threat is the new line of your govt, then the negotiations can end immediately. And I will prepare myself in the coming days to inform the EP and MS. We will regard the failure as being the fault of the UK.”
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) May 5, 2021
But the DUP appears to have been the most unreasonable bunch:
— Dougal (@DougalCMK) May 5, 2021
And Barnier warns at the end that Northern Ireland is a firekeg, primed to explode, and needs to be handled accordingly.
The longer reviews warn that Barnier’s prose is workmanlike and his editors didn’t have him cut back some of repetitive praise of his staff. And the Financial Times’ Paris chief says that Barnier is seen as a dark horse in a Presidential run: he’s not charismatic. But there’s such a dearth of competence at the elite levels these days, and it’s too bad that it isn’t given enough credit.