La Grande Illusion

In the UK to boost sales of his book “The Grand Illusion: A Secret Diary of Brexit”. (La Grande Illusion – Journal secret du Brexit [2016-2020])Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief negotiator on Brexit, was interviewed by Matt Frei on Channel-4 News. Barnier was asked if he rated any of the British politicians he had to consult with during the protracted divorce proceedings. He replied: “I always admire Winston Churchill!” His caustic comment was enlightening and served as an insightful introduction to his book in which he gives a blow-by-blow account of the tortuous Brexit talks with an ever-changing and often shambolic cast of British political leaders and civil servants. 

A leading French politician, Barnier is well placed to comment on relations with Britain. He served as a minister in the cabinets of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, including a spell as minister for foreign affairs. He also served two terms as a European Commissioner, clashing on many occasions with arch-Brexiteer British politicians in his post as European Commissioner for Internal Trade and Services. His extensive experience led to his appointment as chief EU negotiator with the UK over Brexit and his subsequent fiery encounters with Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Digby Jones, David Davies, Dominic Raab and David Frost. Always poised, calm and fiercely on top of his brief, the 70-year-old Monsieur Barnier didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Describing Boris Johnson as “baroque” and lacking detailed knowledge of Brexit, Barnier claimed that the former prime minister was incapable of properly overseeing the negotiations and repeatedly made “derisory… almost infantile” threats to walk away from the trade talks, suggesting it was a “psychodrama we could have done without”. Barnier accused Johnson of “advancing like a bulldozer”, determined to flatten all opposition. He inflicted a similarly withering put down of David Frost, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator and former Scotch Whisky Association chief, calling him a “Drama King”. Barnier describes Nigel Farage as a comical, but dangerous figure, saying “Farage, in private, is as cordial and gentle as he can be a violent demagogue in public”.

Barnier also sticks his literary knife into Dominic Raab, saying he was astonished when he heard Raab’s claim to be surprised to find out the UK was “particularly dependent upon the Dover-Calais crossing.” Barnier says in his diary: “I don’t even want to smile but there is definitely something that is deranged in the British system.” In another extract he says Raab threatened to end negotiations if the EU refused to accept the British position on special customs arrangements. Barnier says: “My heart skipped a beat.” He told Raab that if that was the case then “negotiations can stop right away…and I will prepare myself in the next days to inform the European Parliament and Member States. We will note that negotiations failed on Brexit itself.” Barnier claims that Raab suddenly retracted, having realised that he’d gone too far. “Raab is definitely not a man of nuance,” Barnier exclaims.

It seems the only British officials Barnier liked were Theresa May and Olly Robbins.  He admired Theresa May’s “straightforward style,” although he was less enamoured by her “lack of flexibility.” He was, however, disappointed by her "humiliation" at the hands of a "rampant" British tabloid press. Barnier viewed Olly Robbins, the senior civil servant who led the Brexit negotiations under Theresa May’s premiership, as being “dignified” and having “the calibre of great British high officials. He understands better than others the consequences of Brexit and he seeks to limit its negative effects,” Barnier writes.

One of several grand illusions that Barnier refers to in his book could be regarded as a salutary warning to Nicola Sturgeon and her aspirations for independence. Barnier argues that the UK should not seek to stand alone in today’s global world, where climate change, the war in Ukraine, soaring energy costs, the cost-of-living crisis, and the burgeoning power of countries like America and China, require closer European cooperation, rather than weak, pro-autonomy posturing. In his Channel-4 interview the Frenchman said the Brexiteers’ promise of future prosperity was like “a magic door to the sunlit uplands” and that Britain’s departure from the EU weakened both sides. The SNP promise of a ‘wealthier, happier, fairer” Scotland after independence, has a ring of the ‘sunlit uplands’ refrain about it. If Brexit was bad for Britain, Scotland’s secession and the breakup of the UK would be ten times worse and would certainly weaken both sides.

Michel Barnier told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that talks on resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol and the daunting prospect of a virtual hard border in the Irish Sea, look like they could be nearing a breakthrough. Having noted the byzantine negotiations over Northern Ireland in his Brexit diary, the EU diplomat said there are now high hopes in Brussels, Dublin, London, and Belfast that a solution can be found. With the third anniversary of Britain’s formal departure from the EU on 1st February, Barnier told Laura Kuenssberg that he was confident a deal could be struck. “I think there is a way, because for the first time in three years I see a common willingness... on both sides,” his positive message belying the devastating critique of Brexit in his book.

In "La Grande Illusion", Michel Barnier tells the story of Britain’s painful divorce from the EU and the illusory nature of Brexit for both parties. He may now be watching the unfolding economic and social chaos, as Britain once again becomes the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ with a certain degree of the French version of schadenfreude. His assertions on demagoguery and populism show that there are still lessons to be learned from the whole experience, not least here in Scotland where Scexit is top of the nationalists’ agenda.