The UK’s post-Brexit fate was decided by “the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs,” Michel Barnier – the EU’s chief negotiator – claims in his long-awaited diaries.
In The Great Illusion, his 500-page account of the Brexit saga, Barnier diagnoses Britain’s initial issue was that they started negotiations by “talking to themselves. And they underestimate the legal complexity of this divorce, and many of its consequences.”
But the talking soon turned to Tory party infighting – and by the end, the Brexit process had become “political piracy… They will go to any length. The current team in Downing St is not up to the challenges of Brexit nor to the responsibility that is theirs for having wanted Brexit. Simply, I no longer trust them.”
Published in France on Thursday – and in English later this year – Barnier’s book is a blow-by-blow insider’s account of the four years the Frenchman spent as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
Although he vows at the book’s beginning to “stick to facts, figures, legal fundamentals – in short, to allow little room for emotion and feeling, to the benefit of objectivity.”
That pledge quickly goes out the window. He describes David Davis as “warm, truculent and very self-assured”, whereas Dominic Raab is “almost messianic”.
“There is something in his look that surprises me,” Barnier says of Raab. “He is no doubt fired up by his mission, but I am not sure we will be able to go into the detail of the negotiation with him, take account of facts and realities.”
Theresa May, on the other hand, was “direct, determined… and rather rigid, in her figure and in her attitudes”. Boris Johnson? “Baroque”.
Referring to May’s Lancaster House speech in early 2017, in which the then-prime minister laid out the UK’s red lines, Barnier admits to being “stupefied”. He wrote: “The number of doors she shut, one after the other. I am astonished at the way she has revealed her cards … before we have even started negotiating.”
In the speech, May pledged to end the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, end free movement and leave the single market and customs union, prompting an incredulous Barnier to ask: “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?”
Barnier speaks generously of Britain’s civil servants, describing them as “dignified, competent and lucid”. But, he added: “They have above them a political class who, in part, simply refuse to acknowledge today the direct upshot of the positions they adopted a year ago.”
He admits to never seeing the point of Brexit, and pours scorn on the idea of “Global Britain”. “I do wonder what, until now, has prevented the UK from becoming ‘Global Britain’, other than its own lack of competitiveness,” he writes. “Germany has become ‘Global Germany’ while being firmly inside the EU and the eurozone.”
Addressing Brexiteers like Nigel Farage, Barnier asserts that they behaved “ irresponsibly, with regard to the national interests of their own country. How else could they call on people to make such a serious choice without explaining or detailing to them its consequences?”
On Johnson, Barnier says: “Although his posturing and banter leave him open to it, it would be dangerous to underestimate Johnson.” But he accuses the prime minister of “advancing like a bulldozer, manifestly trying to muscle his way forwards”.
As late as May 2020, Barnier notes his surprise that the UK is still demanding “a simple Canada-type trade dal” while retaining single market benefits “in innumerable sectors”. In Britain, he writes, there remains “real incomprehension, in Britain, of the objective, sometimes mechanical consequences of its choices”.
Talks on post-Brexit trade deal are also described as a rollercoaster. The theatre of the internal market bill – described by Barnier as “a clear breach of international law” – was followed by “almost infantile” and “derisory” threats to walk away over the EU’s demands for a level playing field.
In his postscript, he writes that he was “proud to be part of the unity and solidarity of the EU” – and warns that the UK “in an attempt to erase the consequences of the Brexit it provoked, will try to re-enter through the windows the single market whose door it slammed shut. We must be alert to new forms of cherrypicking.”