Michel Barnier details bewilderment with British approach to Brexit talks

In new book former EU chief negotiator never wavers from view that Britain made mistake

Michel Barnier  describes former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as “courageous”, while  Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is “always shrewd, methodical and well-informed”. Photograph:  John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Michel Barnier describes former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as “courageous”, while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is “always shrewd, methodical and well-informed”. Photograph: John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

 

On Christmas Eve last year, as the Brexit negotiations were entering their final minutes, Michel Barnier sought out his British counterpart in a room in the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters.

“After nine months of negotiations, it is the last time I would see David Frost and our final exchange is professional and cold,” Barnier, who was chief Brexit negotiator, writes in The Great Illusion: a secret Brexit diary (2016-2020)

“He knows I know that until the last moment he has been trying to circumvent me by opening a parallel negotiating track with Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet. And he knows it has not been successful.”

Although he describes Frost as courteous, Barnier makes clear that he neither trusted the British negotiator nor admired his negotiating style. A few weeks earlier, when the British team were refusing to engage with issues of concern to the European side, Barnier told them their negotiating technique was a farce.

Throughout his 500-page diary, which is published in French on Thursday and will appear in an English translation in October, Barnier is bewildered by the British approach to the talks. He never wavers from his conviction that Britain made a mistake in leaving the European Union but he is surprised again and again by the incompetence and self-delusion that informed London’s negotiating strategy.

When Theresa May declared in Lancaster House that Britain wanted to leave the single market and the customs union but hoped to maintain many of their benefits, he could scarcely believe what he was hearing.

“Have the consequences of these decisions been thought through, measured, discussed? Does she realise this rules out almost all forms of cooperation we have with our partners?” he writes.

“I am amazed at the way the prime minister has shown her hand.”

He is generous towards May, describing her as a courageous woman surrounded by a lot of men putting their personal interests ahead of those of their country. Boris Johnson was one of those men but Barnier is careful not to underestimate him and finds him to be an appealing, if “baroque”, personality.

He enjoyed a warm relationship with David Davis but has little complimentary to say about the next Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, whom he describes as having a messianic glint in his eye.

When Raab demanded that the Irish Border issue should be resolved as part of an overall agreement, he warned that the EU would otherwise be responsible for the impact of a no-deal Brexit in the North.

‘The fault of the UK’

“We are searching for solutions together. And Dominic, if this threat is the new line of your government, then the negotiations can end immediately. And I will prepare myself in the coming days to inform the European Parliament and member states. We will regard the failure as being the fault of the UK,” Barnier told him.

From the start, the issue of the Border was central to the talks and Barnier is at his most passionate when he describes his personal commitment to the peace process and his feelings when he met people in Northern Ireland.

“I promised myself in this negotiation not to fuel the polemics and attacks from the British tabloids, to pay attention to the words I use, to stick to the facts, the figures, the legal fundamentals, in short, to leave little room for emotion and feelings, for the sake of objectivity. But here in Ireland . . . it is difficult not tobe touched by the sensitivity, the emotion of those who express themselves, the memories that remind me of this tragedy,” he writes.

Barnier describes former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as “courageous”, praising his role in the abortion rights referendum. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is “always shrewd, methodical and well-informed” and Barnier singles out John Callinan from the Taoiseach’s office and Ireland’s former EU ambassador Declan Kelleher for praise.

While May was hamstrung by the need to negotiate every step in the Brexit talks with her own party, Barnier maintained unity among the EU’s member-states by frequent visits to capitals and open channels of communication to the leaders.

Johnson’s indifference to the truth and his pursuit of “dead cat” strategies and staged crises complicated the negotiations and when Frost opened the second phase of negotiations he told Barnier that the prime minister did not feel bound by the political declaration he agreed alongside the withdrawal agreement.

The Internal Market Act, which included clauses that would have allowed the British government to unilaterally suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, was the trigger for Barnier’s final loss of trust in his negotiating partners. He suggests that Johnson waited until Donald Trump’s election defeat before withdrawing the offending clauses, fearful of their impact on his relationship with Joe Biden.

La Grande Illusion – Journal secret du Brexit (2016-2020) is published by Gallimard.

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