Michel Barnier arrived in London this week as the British government ordered the army in to deliver fuel to filling stations where fights were breaking out among motorists as supplies ran out across the country. Supermarket shelves were empty of some products because of a shortage of CO2 and of others because of a lack of workers to pick vegetables and to process poultry.
Boris Johnson told the country that labour shortages were common throughout Europe and around the world so I asked Barnier if they were experiencing similar problems in France.
"The situation is not the same in France or in Germany or Spain. But I don't want to give lessons," he said before listing factors such as coronavirus and a shortage of raw materials. "And finally and objectively also the concrete consequences of Brexit linked to the decision of the UK to leave the single market, to end the freedom of movement. And because of Brexit, one of the consequences is that we have rebuilt as a direct and mechanical consequence of Brexit some non-tariff barriers between us. But there is no surprise. There must be no surprise because it's exactly what I said for four years in each and every press conference in Brussels or in London."
Despite Johnson’s determination to blame Britain’s troubles on anything but Brexit, its negative impact on parts of the economy is unmistakable. And although Britain has yet to impose checks on European imports while the EU implements full controls on British goods, the impact of Brexit is much greater on one side of the Channel than the other.
“Brexit is lose-lose. But when you look at the proportion of the trade relations, clearly we export around 8 per cent of our goods to the UK. They export around 47 per cent to the EU. So the proportion of suffering is different, maybe because of that. We face the same constraints. We have rebuilt controls and non-tariff barriers. It’s easier to assume and take on board the consequences when you are 26, rather than alone,” Barnier said.
He was in London to promote his book My Secret Brexit Diary, an account of his four years as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator. It is not an intimate, political diary in the tradition of Chips Channon or even Tony Benn, revealing little about the personality of the author, and despite its title it reveals few secrets.
Barnier was eager to rebuff the suggestion in some reviews, however, that the book might not be a real, contemporaneous diary at all but a retrospective account of the negotiation presented as a timeline.
“I told and I wrote the truth about the negotiations and I didn’t change the content of what I wrote every day. Very, very, very carefully, I wrote every day what I thought, what I saw, my personal feelings about the negotiations, a person or situation or place where I was. I told the truth and didn’t change the facts,” he said.
What Barnier’s diary reveals is how much time he spent visiting EU capitals and consulting MEPs and other European figures to ensure that everyone was fully informed about the progress of the negotiations and that there were no surprises. He said his British counterparts never fully understood that the need to keep all the member states on the same page strengthened his negotiating hand rather than weakening it.
“My mandate given by the member states was to defend the EU interest and also to reach an agreement by unanimity. And what the UK did not understand clearly until the end is that this unanimity has been a leverage for unity,” he said.
"Each single or specific issue of one country, one member state had to be taken into account by the 26 others. The first one was Ireland and the peace in Ireland but also less seriously, Gibraltar, the fisheries issue, Cyprus and so on. This was the key. It was a waste of time for the UK to try to bypass my team or to divide us because any temptation to divide us was a higher risk to fail at the end. We were linked by unanimity. It was a leverage for unity."
Barnier knew Ireland as a European commissioner long before he became chief negotiator and he speaks with an uncharacteristic warmth and emotion about the country. He acknowledged that his attachment and understanding deepened as he visited both parts of Ireland during the negotiations, singling out a meeting with the Northern Ireland Rural Women's Network in Dungannon in 2018.
"I have a lot of respect and admiration for Ireland and I feel well in Ireland. I love these people, even when they defeat us in rugby. I worked lots with the two taoisigh, for a long time with Leo Varadkar and then with his successor, Micheál Martin," he said.
The protocol is complex, sensitive and difficult because the situation in Northern Ireland is complex, sensitive, unique
“Even if I try to avoid during this negotiation with the British any kind of emotion of passion – I think the line was to take into account the fact, the legal reality, the interest of EU – you cannot put in the corner human relations when you are in politics. My relationship with the Irish people on both sides during this time was of huge importance. For instance, my meeting in Dungannon was very important for me, very emotional. This meeting was very important because it was like a mandate given by these women when they asked me very movingly, please, you have to do everything you can to avoid that this should begin again.”
Barnier described as “serious” Britain’s attempt to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol by calling for it to be renegotiated, claiming that they agreed it under domestic parliamentary duress in 2019. He insists that the agreement was negotiated very carefully with Johnson “not without him, not against him, with him” so there is no room for any surprise about what it means. The protocol is complex, sensitive and difficult because the situation in Northern Ireland is complex, sensitive, unique.
Brexit is not a small event. It's a very historical and serious event
“The British moved, accepting that EU rules have to be implemented in Northern Ireland as far as goods or animals are concerned. And we moved also towards the UK, accepting for the very, very first time in our history, to ask a third country to implement our rules on our behalf. What is at stake for the moment is just trust. The volume, the nature, the details of the checks and controls has been plain during all these years between the two technical teams. There is no surprise. But once again, I think there is room to implement these checks and controls the best way possible to simplify, to dedramatise,” he said.
“We are ready to find many, many answers but in the framework of the protocol. The protocol is the best answer. The protocol is the answer to the problem. The protocol is not the problem. It is the answer to the problem created by Brexit.”
Barnier has declared his candidacy for the French presidency in next year’s election as the representative of the centre-right, although few expect him to win the nomination when party members vote in December. He said one reason he is running is to make sure that neither France nor the EU ignore the lessons of Brexit.
“France must remain as my country has been, a European country. We have to change what needs to change in Brussels to take into account in particular the lessons of Brexit,” he said.
“Brexit is not a small event. It’s a very historical and serious event. And there are reasons for Brexit. We have to take into account the popular feeling, the social anger expressed in many British regions because we find the same feeling in many regions in Europe, in particular in France. So we have to draw the lessons”