This book is one of the most important ever written on Britain’s tortuous relationship with Europe in the last 50 years. It has been dismissed as a book written by a haut fonctionnaire, what in English would be called a Whitehall Mandarin.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason Barnier comprehensively out-negotiated his opposite numbers and left the EU far stronger in terms of its relationship with our disunited Kingdom is because he is first, foremost, always and last a politician.
He has been elected and re-elected to political posts since his early 20s in a manner closer to Joe Biden in America than most British MPs and ministers.
Conservative or mainstream right-wing politics in France is as treacherous and disloyal as it is here, the US or any major democracy.
Barnier’s political career began in the 1970s and is not yet over, as France saw when he lost by a handful of votes the contest to be the centre-right’s candidate in April’s presidential contest against Emmanuel Macron.
A small confession here. I got to know Michel Barnier when he was first Europe Minister then Foreign Minister of France. France is twice the size of Britain and all French ministers can use a small flotilla of executive jets to visit all corners of the country as well as those French departments across the oceans. The Airbuses and Falcons belonging to GLAM – Groupe de Liaisons Aériennes Ministérielles – whizz the President, ministers, senior officials, or military brass around France and abroad in some contrast to the ageing British planes who do a similar job for the Queen, Prime Minister and now and then other ministers. Sometimes we had to represent the British and French governments at events in far-flung corners of Europe. I would call him up and hitch a lift in the French government plane to travel in luxury in contrast to the penny-pinching Foreign Office officials who travelled the world in first class but expected ministers to use Ryanair and Easyjet.
On those trips I got to know him and have stayed in touch ever since including briefings over lunch in Brussels after 2016 on the politics of Brexit as seen from the British side.
The key point about Barnier is that he is, firstly, a “social’ Gaullist. He has pictures of General de Gaulle and Pope John Paul II that went from ministerial office to Brussels and back to his study in the French countryside. In English terms this might be called “One Nation” politics with a place for social rights and a role for trade unions and support for the weak and marginal in society.
Secondly, he has been a life-long believer in European partnership and construction. In 1992, his party leader, Jacques Chirac, decided to oppose the Maastricht Treaty, mainly on the opportunist grounds that he hoped a defeat in the referendum François Mitterrand held to ratify the treaty would lead to a change of government.
It was the same political reasoning that led William Hague and his successors at the head of the Conservative Party to suddenly embrace vehement anti-European postures hoping that branding Tony Blair as a pro-European puppet of Brussels would lead to a loss of his political control over Britain after 1997.
Barnier refused to go along with Chirac’s cynical manouevering and proudly voted for the Maastricht Treaty in the National Assembly in Paris. He told me that after the vote Chirac came up to poke him repeatedly in the chest.
“Barnier, your career in French politics is finished, over, terminated.” He told the story over a glass of the best Bordeaux as we flew over the Alps. Barnier smiled and said “Look at me now. I’ve held all the big posts in the French government, I’ve been a European Commissioner, and it’s not over yet.”
During the years of Brexit negotiations, the dismissive, derogatory descriptions of Barnier in anti-European papers like the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail or Spectator did not just the public but also the political class, especially in 10 Downing Street, a serious disservice.
Barnier is a genuine friend of Britain and I have never heard him utter a word of disdain or disrespect for the United Kingdom.
It is clear from these diaries that he could not fully believe the incoherent, ramshackle and politically naïve approach of British negotiators. Every single week he would visit an EU capital, from Lisbon to Lithuania, meet the head of governments, other ministers, MPs, business leaders and influencers and explain patiently what he was doing and hoping to achieve.
He learnt more than passable English late in life to deal with Brexit. Some of his opposite numbers like David Davis or Theresa May have spent long years in opposition. The House of Commons is generous with support for any MP who wants to learn or improve a foreign language. But in the 13 years of opposition 1997-2010 when most Tory MPs had nothing to do except a little light plotting not one of the self-proclaimed experts on Europe like David Davis, or John Redwood, or Liam Fox decided they be more effective if they could read or speak a European language.
Very early on Barnier accuses Liam Fox of telling an ‘untruth.’ He laughs at David Davis’s claims he would “cut off (Barnier) from contacts with other EU leaders.” Michel Barnier had been elected president of the European People’s Party, the federation of centre-right parties controlled by Angela Merkel.
Barnier worked his EPP network of prime ministers and chancellors every week. There is no evidence that any British leader could even name half of them. These were political negotiations but time and again Barnier reports on British ministers and officials arriving with a wish-list and no serious thought-out plan for Brexit.
Conventional wisdom portrays Theresa May as trying to do her best but thwarted by hard-line Brexit obsessives marshalled by Steve Baker MP in the European Research Group who had their hero-leader – Boris Johnson – ready to lead Britain to Brexit Nirvana. In fact, as Barnier makes clear, it was Theresa May who destroyed all hopes of a reasonable Brexit as early as September 2016 when she said that Britain would seek a full rupture with the Single Market and Customs Union.
Her arbitrary decision, made worse by losing David Cameron’s 2015 Tory majority in the 2017 election, destroyed hopes of an agreed modus vivendi to maintain peace in Northern Ireland. DUP MPs have described the Good Friday Agreement as a ‘capitulation’.
Throughout the diaries there are references to the work of Irish diplomats and EU officials as well as elected politicians in Ireland. Barnier met with the DUP, especially after they became the tail that wagged Theresa May after her botched election of 2017 handed the fate of her administration over to the most obdurately anti-European of all the Ulster political class.
Brexit destroyed the civil service careers of two of Britain’s best public servants, Ivan Rogers and Olly Robbins. David Davis by contrast wanders in and out of the diaries, as someone who did no homework, often just didn’t turn up, and clearly locked in a dialogue of the deaf with Theresa May.
Barnier told me that when Theresa May was ousted by the ultra-hard Brexit fanatics Johnson “came to see me and said ‘I need a deal’. I understood that so I gave him a deal. It was the one Theresa May turned down based on treating the entire island of Ireland as lying within the Single Market.”
Johnson jumped at the offer, sold it as “Getting Brexit Done” and went on to win his election. The LibDem leader, Jo Swinson, broke ranks with Labour and the SNP and gave Johnson his majority for an election in the Commons. Had she stayed firm instead of fantasising about a LibDem government we would have had Johnson chewing the carpet for two years in Downing Street and facing an election in 2022 with his present record of non-achievement.
But that’s “What if” history and in the last part of the diaries Barnier simply stands firm on the common position agreed by 27 leaders of democratic sovereign governments that relations with the UK would be based on the extent of British willingness to work – rather like the Swiss – on finding common agreements that did not undermine the integrity of the single market or threaten peace in Northern Ireland.
Barnier reflects on London’s threat to break its agreement that has been endorsed by Johnson, accepted by Parliament, and was the political basis for Johnson winning his majority in December 2019:
“I feel the threat is a betrayal of their word. It seems they will stop at nothing. Perhaps most seriously for me personally, I do not feel that the team currently in 10 Downing Street is equal to the challenges of Brexit and what is at stake in it, nor to the responsibility they bear for having brought Brexit upon themselves. I simply don’t trust them anymore. And we need trust to make a deal on our future relationship.”
His diary concludes with the praise he received from the heads of government in Europe. From the European perspective the appointment of Barnier by Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker was fully justified.
But I doubt if any history of British negotiations with foreign powers on an issue of vital importance to the nation can record such a tale of a weak hand played badly. The national interest was jettisoned again and again after the disastrous choice of a populist plebiscite on Europe made by David Cameron.
Normally we have to wait years, if not decades, before historians and even participants in a major recasting of Britain’s relationship with its main neighbours can reveal what happened. For students of Britain’s relationship with continental Europe and Ireland as we enter the troubled future of Brexiternity the Barnier diaries are an invaluable resource and lift the curtain on the weakness of the British state as the political class isolates the nation from Europe.