Rarely do we see thinking of the other side of a negotiation so quickly, while the trail is still warm. Michel Barnier’s new book helps explain why Britain ended up being comprehensively out-negotiated over Brexit and saddled with a flawed withdrawal agreement and a deeply disadvantageous future relationship, both of which will cause us major problems for decades to come. This is therefore an important account.
That said, Barnier may be an excellent haute fonctionnaire, but judging by the stilted prose of this “secret diary” he is definitely not an author. We learn little about the newly declared French presidential candidate other than that he admires General De Gaulle. There are no startling revelations and there is more technical detail – much more – than most people will want. Nor does this read like a genuinely contemporaneous diary; a giveaway is that he too often knows the future, writing, for example, that: “I will have Martin Selmayr on the line several times over the next few days.”
Nevertheless, five basic reasons for the EU’s success and the UK’s failure jump out of these pages, which, as a result, contain valuable lessons.
First, the EU side was professional and properly prepared, whereas the UK was not. Barnier was across the detail at every stage, and even read Stanley Johnson’s 1987 novel The Commissioner to try to understand his son. He focused from the beginning on the landing zone for the negotiation and prepared a full legal text of the free trade agreement before the talks began. When negotiations opened, the media made much of a photo of Barnier sitting with a file full of papers on the table in front of him while David Davis had nothing at all. The reality was far worse. Barnier was astounded by Davis’s “nonchalant” approach: “As is always the case with him we rarely get into the substance of things,” he writes about one subsequent encounter.
Second, Barnier says it was the unity of the 27, “so unexpected for the British, that forced them to finally agree to pay their full share”. The British side repeatedly tried to negotiate with individual member states rather than the Commission, but kept being sent back to Barnier. Even at the last moment, Boris Johnson tried to phone Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, but both leaders refused to take his call. Barnier spends a vast amount of his time keeping member states on side, travelling endlessly to capitals and engaging with ministers. He saw off repeated British attempts to negotiate directly with the cabinet of the president of the commission, and Barnier reserves a special place in hell for the notorious Selmayr, Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, acidly commenting: “It is just a pity that he has difficulty in accepting the limits of his role.”
The British government spent a year negotiating rancorously with itself, which allowed the EU to set the agenda
Third, the EU knew what it wanted and stuck to it. The British government spent a year negotiating rancorously and publicly with itself, which allowed the EU to take the initiative, set the agenda and frame the negotiations as it wished. It decided from the beginning that it would separate the divorce agreement from discussions on the future relationship, so the British could not use paying the leaving bill to buy access to parts of the single market. Britain tilted hopelessly at trying to change that sequence and tied its hands early on by setting out its red lines. Listening to Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, Barnier marvelled at “the sheer number of doors she is closing here! Has she thought it through?” The EU watched with amusement and horror as the British tore themselves apart. Barnier writes of May that “this is not really a negotiation with the EU but a far more intense negotiation, on an almost hourly basis, with her own ministers and her own majority”.
The fourth reason for British failure was that Johnson made the disastrous tactical decision to try to provoke the EU in the hope it would be shaken, even briefing it as “the mad man strategy”. Barnier spotted this straight away. In the face of “threats and unpredictability” he decided to remain “calm, confident and solid” and just keep going. The British approach backfired spectacularly. In October 2020, David Frost cancelled negotiations and refused to resume them unless the EU publicly changed its position and recognised UK “sovereignty”. A week later he had to humiliatingly crawl back to the table. Most disastrously, the threat of a no deal fell flat. Barnier comments: “The British want us to believe that they are not afraid of a no deal”; they are playing a “game of chicken” and the EU task is to “keep our cool”. When the British resorted to reneging on what they had just agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol and breaking international law with the Internal Market Bill, far from forcing the EU into concessions, they destroyed the little trust that still existed.
Finally, the EU used deadlines effectively to get its way, whereas the UK walked into a series of traps. May unnecessarily triggered Article 50, which started a two-year stopwatch, without a clear vision of what she wanted. When Davis tried to hurry Barnier up, his response was that “[Davis] is mistaken. We have time on our side”. Barnier may be unreasonably proud of his catchphrase – “the clock is ticking” – adopted right from the beginning, but he is right that the British set a time limit that worked against themselves.
Sadly, Northern Ireland became collateral damage in this farrago. From the beginning Barnier saw that the “Irish question is the stumbling block”. May and her chief official, Olly Robbins, tried hard to protect the Good Friday Agreement with an increasingly Heath Robinson-esque structure by which the whole UK remained in the Customs Union. But Johnson never took Northern Ireland seriously, proposing fictional technological solutions for the border. At one stage, Barnier had to tell a group of European Research Group MPs that the health of cows could not be assessed by drone. It is clear from Barnier’s account that Johnson knew absolutely what he was agreeing to when he signed up to a border in the Irish Sea. And Barnier was appalled when Johnson told the press shortly after that there would be no controls on goods between Britain and Northern Ireland – “which is not what the withdrawal agreement says”.
The fact is, the die was cast from the beginning. The EU set the framework and the UK was unable to escape. As Barnier writes: “I still think it is insane that a great country like the UK is conducting such a negotiation and taking such a decision … without having any clear vision of it or a majority to support it.” His conclusion, with which I agree, is that: “There is most definitely something wrong with the British system … every passing day shows that they have not realised the consequences of what is truly at stake here.” There ought to a be an inquiry into why, when we pride ourselves on our diplomatic prowess, we were so comprehensively defeated at the negotiation table, but this diary is probably the closest we will get.
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Barnier’s account ends in bathos. The final agreement is reached in a video call between Johnson and the EU team in Brussels on Christmas Eve 2020. He writes: “This is the last time that I see David Frost, and our final exchange is cold and professional. He knows that I know that up until the last moment he was still trying to bypass me by opening a parallel line of negotiation with President von der Leyen’s office. And he knows that he did not succeed in doing so.”
Ultimately, Barnier can’t even claim the satisfaction of a job well done, although he certainly outnegotiated the British. Everyone is a loser and we have still not felt the full cost.
• Jonathan Powell was Downing Street chief of staff and chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007. My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion by Michel Barnier, translated by Robin Mackay, is published by Polity (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.