Rdon’t we see so quickly thinking of the other side of a negotiation, while the track is still hot. Michel Barnier’s new book helps explain why Britain ended up being largely non-negotiating on Brexit and struggling with a flawed Withdrawal Agreement and deeply disadvantageous future relationship, both of which will cause us major problems for decades to come. It is therefore an important account.
That said, Barnier can be a great high official, but judging by the stilted prose of this “secret diary”, he is definitely not an author. We learn little about the new French presidential candidate, other than that he admires General De Gaulle. There aren’t any surprising reveals, and there are more technical details – a lot more – than most people would like. It doesn’t read like a truly contemporary newspaper either; a gift is that he knows the future too often, writing, for example, that: “I will have Martin Selmayr online several times over the next few days.”
Nevertheless, five fundamental reasons for the success of the EU and the failure of the UK emerge from these pages, which, therefore, contain valuable lessons.
First, the European side was professional and well prepared, while the UK was not. Barnier was through the details every step of the way, and even read Stanley Johnson’s 1987 novel The Commissioner to try and figure out his son. He focused from the start on the landing zone for the negotiation and prepared a full legal text of the free trade agreement before the start of the talks. As negotiations opened, the media made much of a photo of Barnier sitting with a folder full of papers on the table in front of him while David Davis had nothing at all. The reality was much worse. Barnier was stunned by Davis’ “nonchalant” approach: “As is always the case with him, we rarely get to the bottom of it,” he wrote of a later encounter.
Second, Barnier says it was the unity of the 27, “so unexpectedly for the British, that forced them to finally agree to pay their full share.” The UK side made several attempts to negotiate with individual Member States rather than the Commission, but continued to be referred to Barnier. Even at the last moment, Boris Johnson tried to phone Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but the two leaders refused to take his call. Barnier spends much of his time keeping member states on the side, endlessly traveling to capitals and engaging with ministers. He has fended off repeated British attempts to negotiate directly with the committee chairman’s cabinet, and Barnier reserves a special place in hell for the infamous Selmayr, Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, commenting sourly: “It is just a pity that he finds it difficult to accept the limits of his role.
Third, the EU knew what it wanted and stuck to it. The UK government spent a year grudgingly and publicly negotiating with itself, allowing the EU to take the lead, set the agenda and frame the negotiations as it saw fit. He decided early on that he would separate the divorce deal from talks about the future relationship, so the British could not use the payment of the starting bill to buy access to parts of the single market. Great Britain desperately tried to change that streak and tied their hands early on by setting their red lines. Listening to Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House, Barnier marveled at the “impressive number of doors she closes here!” Has she thought about it? â The EU watched with amusement and horror as the British tear themselves apart. Barnier writes of May that “it is not really a negotiation with the EU but a much more intense negotiation, on an almost hourly basis, with its own ministers and its own majority”.
The fourth reason for Britain’s failure was that Johnson made the disastrous tactical decision of trying to provoke the EU in the hope that it would be shaken, even describing it as “the madman’s strategy”. Barnier noticed it right away. In the face of “threats and unpredictability,” he decided to stay “calm, confident and strong” and keep going. The British approach backfired dramatically. In October 2020, David Frost called off negotiations and refused to resume them unless the EU publicly changes its position and recognizes UK ‘sovereignty’. A week later, he had to humiliatingly crawl all the way to the table. More catastrophic, the threat of a no deal has fallen flat. Barnier comments: âThe British want us to believe that they are not afraid of a non-agreement â; they are playing a ‘chicken game’ and the EU’s task is to ‘keep our cool’. When the British gave up what they had just granted in the Northern Ireland Protocol and broke international law with the Home Market Bill, far from forcing the EU into concessions, they destroyed the little trust that still existed.
Finally, the EU has effectively used deadlines to achieve its ends, while the UK has fallen into a series of pitfalls. May needlessly triggered Section 50, which set off a two-year stopwatch, without a clear vision of what she wanted. When Davis tried to dispatch Barnier, his response was that “[Davis] is wrong. We have time on our side â. Barnier may be excessively proud of his slogan – ‘the countdown’ – adopted from the start, but he’s right that the British set a time limit that worked against themselves.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland has become collateral damage in this farrago. From the start, Barnier saw that the “Irish question is the stumbling block”. May and her senior official, Olly Robbins, worked to protect the Good Friday deal with an increasingly Heath Robinson-esque structure whereby the whole of the UK remained in the Customs Union. But Johnson never took Northern Ireland seriously, coming up with fictitious technology solutions for the border. At one point, Barnier had to tell a group of MEPs from the European Research Group that cow health cannot be assessed by drone. It is clear from Barnier’s account that Johnson knew absolutely what he was getting into when he set out on a border in the Irish Sea. And Barnier was appalled when Johnson told reporters soon after that there would be no checks on goods between Britain and Northern Ireland – “which is not what said the withdrawal agreement â.
The point is, the die was cast from the start. The EU set the framework and the UK could not escape. As Barnier writes: âI still think it does not make sense for a big country like the UK to conduct such a negotiation and make such a decisionâ¦ without having a clear vision or a majority to back it. His conclusion, which I agree with, is: âThere is most definitely something wrong with the UK systemâ¦ every day that passes shows that they have not realized the consequences of what is happening. is really at stake here â. There should be an investigation as to why, while we are proud of our diplomatic prowess, we have been so largely defeated at the negotiating table, but this log is probably the closest we will get.
Barnier’s story ends in bathos. The final deal is made during a video call between Johnson and the EU team in Brussels on Christmas Eve 2020. He writes: âThis is the last time I see David Frost, and our final exchange is cold and professional. He knows that I know that until the last moment he tried to bypass me by opening a parallel negotiating line with President von der Leyen’s office. And he knows he hasn’t succeeded.
In the end, Barnier can’t even claim the satisfaction of a job well done, although he certainly surpassed the British. Everyone is a loser and we still haven’t felt the full cost.