Michel Barnier’s Brexit Diaries Published; Stinging Take of UK Strategic and Negotiating

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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.

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.

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, 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”.

From the Financial Times:

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:

But the DUP appears to have been the most unreasonable bunch:

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.

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  1. Basil Pesto

    Not French knowledge per se, but in the unlikely event this eludes anyone, the title ‘La Grande Illusion’ is an allusion to Renoir’s classic, or perhaps the book the title comes from. From wikipedia:

    The title of the film comes from the 1909 book The Great Illusion by British journalist Norman Angell, which argued that war is futile because of the common economic interests of all European nations.

  2. Steve

    Michel Barnier has set up dairies? Shrewd post-Brexit farming business planning!


  3. sd

    …there’s such a dearth of competence at the elite levels these days

    Ain’t that the truth. It seems to be prevalent everywhere..

    1. Basil Pesto

      sorry if I come across a bit monomaniacal banging on this particular drum, but in comments yesterday I brought up a documentary movie I saw called Colectiv, and it makes me question this particular premise a bit, insofar as assuming that one reaches an elite level in governance or administration, and one is also competent, in the sense of recognising what is good, proper, sensible to do in a given instance, it may not necessarily count for much. Either because, perhaps tritely, there is always a higher-up, or perhaps more accurately in modern institutions: power is diffuse and there are many countervailing forces that can weigh against any competence (that’s in the sense that I defined above; one might be inclined to argue that it’s not truly competence if one cannot do what one believes should be done).

      Come to think of it, this was also one of the themes of The Wire, within for example the Baltimore Police Department’s hierarchy, but also in the form of Carcetti, in his transformation from idealist to Just Another (careerist) Democrat (I’m sure it wasn’t his intention, but Simon really did embarrass Sorkin with that show).

      Perhaps not applicable in this specific instance but it’s an interesting discussion.

    2. Equitable > Equal

      Barnier, though a fantastic negotiator, will not necessarily have the competencies required to be an effective president. Good negotiators a) keep their cards close to their chest and b) work toward maximising a predetermined scenario. Neither are useful in the context of indirect leadership in pursuit of fuzzy/undetermined goals. If, on the other hand he sets a clear domestic agenda at the outset, maybe he can make it work?

  4. Fazal Majid

    Perhaps one thing that does not translate well from French is litote, a double negation that is actually an emphatic affirmation, the textbook example being va, je ne te hais point, meaning literally “go, I do not hate you” but in actuality “I love you (even though you killed my father in a duel)”.

    The UK finally agreed to give the EU delegation full diplomatic privileges, a pointless slight in a tense relationship that did not need any further aggravation. It seems this was not so much driven by Europhobes’ knee-jerk compulsion to poke the EU in the eye as by Raab’s searing experience with the Anne Sacoolas scandal, where the wife of a US spook claimed diplomatic immunity after killing a cyclist because she forgot the British drive on the wrong side of the road, and was quickly whisked away to the US before the UK could realize she did not in fact have immunity or that she herself was a spook, possibly even higher-ranked than her husband.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      It wasn’t something I was following closely, but I did find Raabs response to the Sacoolas case curious. He seemed to be genuinely upset and concerned about it, which is out of character for someone who always struck me as being, shall we say, having a brain somewhat lacking in the empathy department.

      I’m wondering if behind the scenes some Tories are discovering that the US doesn’t really like them as much as they thought and this discovery is proving to be very unsettling for them.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    Unfortunately, my French is too faded to try to read a book like this, it would take me all year to get through it, so for now I’ll have to rely on hot takes.

    In some ways, this book may published be too early to be reliable, as Barnier is too close to power and his own ambitious may still be alive, so I doubt he is being 100% honest. But from what I’ve seen so far, it seems in line with what most close observers were thinking. His take on Foster and Dodds is interesting though, I’ve always suspected that Foster was completely out of her depth (like most of the DUPers) when out of their small pond. One day we’ll find out what London insiders really think of them and I don’t think it’ll be favourable, even from their fellow Brexiters.

    On the general point of Brexit, it does seem that things aren’t getting any better on the UK side, they still seem to be struggling with dealign with even basic issues. There seems to be a growing concensus that Covid has given cover for much of the problems, and the EU is so far turning a blind eye to a lot of what is now illegal trade (mostly going via NI), but this is simply to ease things – going into 2022 is when the big companies and major supply chains outside of food will really get hit with a wave of paperwork that they are not equipped to deal with. I suspect that the EU project of asset stripping the UK of its financial industry will then start in earnest too.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If the UK were entirely asset-stripped of all traces of its financial industry, would that force the UK peoples ( in particular the Greater Londonians) to think anew in terms of making things, growing things, doing things?

      1. disillusionized

        The last 100 years of British policy gave been to avoid perceiving unwelcome facts, so I would bet on denial for as long as possible.

  6. David

    I’ll try to get hold of a copy here – it’s a doorstep-sized tome and will take some time to get through. However, Gallimard, Barnier’s publishers, have put extracts from the book on line and if you fancy your French have a go. There’s a PDF version, which you can’t download, but from which you could theoretically cut and paste scraps into a translation. Meanwhile, a few of what the French call elements of context.

    First, Barnier. He’s a Gaullist by background, who joined the youth wing of the RPR when De Gaulle was still outside politics. De Gaulle, after he came to power, was very sceptical about the EC, and disliked its supranational aspects. He more or less adjusted to it, but, as late as the 1990s, French policy was much more nationalist than is the case today. Barnier comes more from the “Europe of nations” tradition (ironically, now promoted by Le Pen) than from the reflexive pro-Brussels tradition of the last couple of decades. Barnier has an extraordinary amount of experience: he was in politics before Macron was born, and had multiple Ministerial jobs, including Minister for Europe and later Foreign Minister, as well as jobs in Brussels. This means both that he has a lifetime of negotiating experience, and also that he remembers the (pretty efficient) British machine of the 1990s, which was starting to stutter, but still working quite well on the whole. The French have always admired the British system from a technical point of view, and Barnier must have been totally bewildered to encounter a system which was clearly falling apart before his eyes. This Does Not Compute, he must have thought.

    Second, the title. As Barnier notes, “La Grande Illusion” is the title of a classic film by Jean Renoir, as well as the Norman Angell book which argued that war was obsolete as a tool of international relations. The “Great Illusion” is the illusion that any country can survive in the modern world outside an alliance or a bloc of some kind. The epigraph of the book is from King Lear, and it’s obvious that Barnier is suggesting that Johnson’s “folly” will do for Britain what Lear did to his kingdom.

    Third, French politics. Barnier is not the leading candidate for the Presidency, but he is well qualified and this is his only chance (he’s 70 this year). On the other hand, Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pecresse have yet to take off in the polls, and Barnier has the experience and gravitas that both lack. He’s a kind of anti-Macron: he was negotiating treaties when Macron was in school, and he came up the old fashioned way as a right-wing politician, rather than vaulting from elite schools to elite jobs to banking and now the Presidency. Barnier is a lot closer to the traditional image of a French President than Macron ever was. The book is also a warning to the French not to follow the British, but it isn’t trying just to scare them either. The book opens, in fact, with Le Pen’s reaction to the UK referendum result, and is aimed at influencing opinion in France, which tends to be divided between the mindless Brusselsism of the elites and the scepticism of much of the population.

    A few nuggets (my quick translation.)

    “The great illusion is to think that we can get by on our own in the face of the -often violent – transformation of the world…. I understand and I share everyone’s attachment to their country. I also know that we need nations to combat nationalism. But this sense of rootedness (enracinement) can and should go together with an engagement in favour of Europe….. All my life I have had a certain idea of Europe. This idea has never weakened or replaced my pride in being French of the force of my patriotism.” So he’s marking out what is in many ways a traditional Gaullist position.

    Barnier tries to understand the UK: he recognises that for many British people Europe will always be “another world.” He also acknowledges that other people have doubts. But, he says “I have long been convinced that it is the silence, the arrogance and the distance of elites which feed fears and encourage demagoguery.” Likewise, there is a feeling that Europe “is not interested in peoples’ concerns.” that it does not “protect against the consequences of globalisation. A Europe which has, for too long, pushed for deregulation and ultraliberlism without taking proper account of the social and environmental consequences.” Likewise, he acknowledges that people are angry with “a Europe that cannot control its external frontiers nor agree among itself… A Europe which could not protect its industry … and which is seen as too complex and not democratic enough.” And so on. That said, Europe is still fundamental and its virtues need to be respected. “It’s late, but not too late.”

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Great overview, thanks. Since it looks inevitable that France will be faced with a choice between a right winger or a really, really right winger for the next President, Barnier looks very much like the lesser of many evils were he to run and win. He is at least worldly and competent and seemingly not too hung up on ideology. Plus, it would drive the right wing UK media nuts.

    2. DJG, Reality Czar

      Thanks, David. In one of the quotes above, Barnier refers to Boris Johnson as “authentic,” which may sound like a compliment in Anglo-America, where so many aspire to be that Diamond in the Rough. From a French person, though, “authentique” sounds like a polite term for someone who doesn’t know when to tutoyer (if ever).

      Logistics: I will give the longer links here to Gallimard, just in case people want to click through. The flip book has only about 55 pages available. Then one hits the lock on the remaining 500 pages.

      Given that the French pride themselves on brevity in writing, I’m not sure what 550 pages are supposed to mean. No one can remember that much.

      People above have commented on the main title, La Grande Illusion.

      The subtitle brings to my mind the Secret History by Procopius, which wasn’t pretty. Wikipedia sez: “The work claims to expose the secret springs of their public actions, as well as the private lives of the emperor and his entourage. Justinian is portrayed as cruel, venal, prodigal, and incompetent.”

      An irony that Barnier may be aware of: The work wasn’t published in Procopius’ lifetime. Instead, after being discovered in the Vatican, it was published in Lyon (then the main center for publishing in France) in 1623.


      The flip book:

  7. Patrick

    Can I assume the title of the article meant to say Diaries rather than Dairies?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Maybe its a reference to all those dairies that have lost their European customers…..

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Aiiee, since a real word, didn’t trigger spell check! And I tend not to look at headlines after entering them. Gah.

  8. Idiocrates

    I am (almost) certain Barnier’s ‘La Grande Illusion’ did not allude to what Michael Hudson said in his most recent webinar, posted on NC a few days ago:

    Well you’re going to have to withdraw from the European Union, to begin with. Right now, Europe’s government is part of NATO. Europe is governed by a small office in the bottom of the Pentagon


    The illusion here being that Europe (as a whole and individually) actually decides anything of substance. MH was responding to a question about what to do to rollback the damage being done in Europe by existing economic policy (that’s how I understood the question).

    In this context “brexit, crackle and pop” and all the ensuing consequences are all but irrelevant in terms of the bigger forces at play. The UK is a vassal whether within or without the EU. As long as UK and European elites kowtow to the Pentagon (Washington), in a monthly ritual, nothing can really change.

    1. vlade

      Anyone who believes that Europe as a hodge-podge of national states would be _less_ suspectible to the US influence is seriously deluding themselves.

      As an example, you can look at the UK right now.

      1. Idiocrates

        Indeed, but I agree with MH in that its a ‘first step’ i.e. necessary but not sufficient.

        In all honesty I can’t see the sufficient part emerging from within Europe. However, and this is the sad part, it (influence reduction) is most likely to come about as US power declines…

        …hope dies last!

  9. Sound of the Suburbs

    If only we had indentified the real problem, we could have come up with a real solution.

    What was the real problem?
    The economy has been in a state of Japanification since 2008, but no one has noticed.
    What does Japanification look like?
    (Set scale to max. to get the full picture)

    The UK economy hasn’t really been going anywhere since 2008.
    (Set scale to max. to get the full picture)
    It’s Japanification.

    Japanification is caused by leaving the debt in place after a financial crisis, as Japan knows only too well.

    The UK lashed out and placed the blame on the EU because no one had the faintest idea what the real problem was.

    The liberals said the status quo was fine, but it wasn’t.
    Well, it probably was in the prosperous areas where they live.

    What you need to do is place the blame somewhere and then explain how you’ll fix it.
    The Conservatives blamed it on the EU and everything would be fine after Brexit.
    This is where the trouble starts, because the EU wasn’t actually the problem.

    1. Idiocrates

      Ahem, I need to do no such thing because it is not about me.

      I do agree with the sentiment (as I understood it) of your question i.e. solve the right problem. In my view the closest anyone has come to pinning down the problem is what MH talked about i.e. the design of Europe as a Pentagon financing project or follow the money, qui bono etc.

      Brexit, shmexit are all interesting but it/they are hardly the real problem.

    2. Anonymous 2

      Measured in euros the UK economy in 2020 is smaller than it was in 2000.
      And in dollars it is smaller than it was in 2007.

      The UK economy is basically a basket case.

      1. Sound of the Suburbs

        Japanification is caused by leaving the debt in place after a financial crisis, as Japan knows only too well.
        Guess who else did the same thing?

        The EU hasn’t been going anywhere since 2008.
        (Set scale to max. to get the full picture)
        It’s Japanification

        The US does seem to be growing, and Richard Koo has put this down to them not doing austerity.
        I am still thinking about the US at the moment, I have a feeling they have come up with another bad solution to the problem.

  10. JohnTh

    It is always amusing when people outside the UK, who have never travelled in the UK, worked in the different parts of the UK and talked to your average Brit in deep Britain to understand their views believe that they know better than the Brits what is best for them. The EU offers nothing and is falling apart. The EU never ever negotiates in good faith. All you have to do is look at the history of negotiating with various countries that have had financial difficulties like Greece for example whose initial debt was around €10 billion but is now well north of €400 billion!!! The country is destroyed, it has lost almost all of its friends outside of the EU like Russia, its positions are never supported within the EU or the UK, recently the most cherished site in Orthodox Christianity was reverted back into a mosque by Turkey and don’t be surprised when northern Cyprus is accepted by all the powers as a separate state because Turkey has at least some leverage while Greece who bends over backwards to support EU positions has none.

    Back to Britain, the only way for Boris Johnson to survive as prime minister was to deliver Brexit. A point that people not living in Britain have difficulty to understand. In the same way that Boris got the initial agreement related to article 50 by not dealing directly with the EU but by playing off France against Germany, he did exactly the same thing to get a free trade agreement with the EU. The only real countries that matter in the EU are France and Germany. Except for the more state centrist countries in Central Europe like Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Austria the rest generally just do what they are told. Boris knew that and by calling the EU’s bluff twice he got either France, who was focused on fishing rights or Germany who are focused on selling manufactured goods (primarily cars) to offer the UK a better deal. And that is EXACTLY what happened. As for Britain not taking off, that has more to do with the UK tying its sails to a failing superpower in the US than due to lack of opportunity. Deals with China, Russia and most of Asia (both east and west) are available if they distance themselves from the US and focus on doing what is best for Britain. But old habits die hard.

    1. disillusionized

      Five years of external observation should pretty clearly be enough to discern that brexut was and is an idiotic idea.

      Further those years should have showed how the eu isn’t just France/Germany, see Ireland.
      As for Greece, should the eu just have eaten the Greek debt? Yeah probably. But that would have required other countries taxpayers to subsidise Greece, which was politically impossible.

      As for boris, may dealt with article 50, Boris deal is laughably lopsided in favour of the eu, and eurosceptics have been saying any day now since 1953.
      Any day now, I’m sure.

  11. R

    I am pro Brexit but I cannot identify what two improvements Boris obtained playing France and Germany against each other. Can you be more precise, please?

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