My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion, by Michel Barnier (transl Robin Mackay), Polity Press, 450 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1590550869
The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd, 2016. In December 2019 it concluded a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, including a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it formally left on January 31st, 2020. On January 1st, 2021, after an eleven-month transition period, it ceased to be bound by the rules of the Single Market and other EU legislation and a Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed the previous month came into effect.
It is almost five and a half years since the people of the UK made their choice. But it is clear that Brexit is a process as well as an event. Ivan Rogers, the British Permanent Representative to the EU, and the British official with the greatest experience and knowledge of the Union, predicted that it would take ten years. His perceptive realism was interpreted by Theresa May and her advisers as defeatism, and he resigned in January 2017. Much of what he predicted has come true.
The working out of Brexit is, therefore, far from complete. The implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is hotly contested. Brexit’s initial impact on the British economy has been negative, but it is too early to say how much difficulty has been caused by it and how much by Covid and by global economic problems. It will not emerge for some time if the UK will use its freedom of manoeuvre to make significant regulatory changes, and if it does whether this will improve its economic performance in the long run. It has not yet managed to negotiate any significantly different new trade agreements. There are no mechanisms for EU-UK foreign and security policy cooperation – Theresa May saw this as a pillar of the post-Brexit relationship; Boris Johnson chose to reject it.
For now at least, the Johnson government seems to prefer provoking Brussels to working with it: will it continue to do so, or will things settle down? The idea that a future Labour government would seek to rejoin the Union is a fantasy, but it would presumably seek a closer and more harmonious relationship. Within the EU, the UK’s departure has further strengthened the Franco-German duo and has weakened the economically liberal camp of which Ireland is a member (though the zeitgeist has been independently changing in the direction of greater “strategic autonomy” and state intervention in any case). The Brexit saga is thus a long way from completion. But its first part – taking us up to the end of the beginning – can now be written. Michel Barnier’s My Secret Brexit Diary will be an essential source – though it of course tells just one part of the story.
Immediately after the referendum the EU quickly defined its core principles and objectives. Sherpas and ambassadors met on Sunday June 26th to prepare a meeting of leaders on the following Thursday. The Twenty-Seven regretted the UK’s decision, and hoped for a close future partnership, but placed the onus on Britain to say what it wanted. Any future agreement must be based on a balance of rights and obligations. Access to the Single Market required respect for all four freedoms (of the movement of people, capital, goods and services). Withdrawal negotiations would be based on the hitherto unused Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and could not begin until it was triggered by the UK. Unity among the twenty-seven was imperative. Until it left, Britain would continue to be bound by its Treaty obligations.
This framework was elaborated, but not basically altered, over the coming months and years. A Withdrawal Agreement under Article 50 had to be concluded before formal negotiations on the future began. The three main issues to be settled in the withdrawal negotiations were the UK’s financial obligations, the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK, and vice versa, and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects, including the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
In the future the UK could not, by retaining selective advantages, be better off outside the European Union than inside. A future trade agreement required a level playing field on competition, environmental and social policy.
After some initial uncertainty, member states accepted that the European Commission would be the Union’s negotiator, though within a mandate they gave to it, and subject to close oversight. Without delay, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, asked Michel Barnier to lead the negotiating team, though he was not a serving Commissioner or official. Barnier’s credentials were clear. He had twice served as a European Commissioner, first for regional policy and later, during the financial crisis, for the internal market, including financial services. He had also been French minister for Europe, agriculture and foreign affairs. This impressive career had not, however, won him quite the standing which might have been expected. In France he was not seen as a stellar performer – loyal, solid and a safe pair of hands, but not inspired. In the diary he records that when he chose to remain as a Commissioner rather than accept a ministry from Jacques Chirac, Chirac expressed amazement that he would prefer to be an “haut fonctionnaire”. Unlike many members of the French élite (including Chirac, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron, and large numbers of ministers and senior officials) he did not pass through any of the grandes écoles. A Gaullist from his teens, and a constant admirer of the general, he was a local politician who made his name leading the successful bid to bring the 1992 Winter Olympics to his region, Savoy. In Paris some still apparently condescend to call him “the ski instructor”.
In Brussels he was seen as very committed and a hard worker, and as the French Commissioner he naturally carried weight, but he did not make the weather. His 2010-14 financial services brief was remarkably onerous, with the vast amount of legislation required in response to the crisis proposed and enacted. Some of this provoked hostility from the City, and The Daily Telegraph described him in 2010, rather improbably, as “the most dangerous man in Europe” (the diary shows that he remembers). During Ireland’s EU presidency in 2013 we worked together very closely, and I liked and respected him.
Barnier had other qualifications for the job. His long career had given him an extensive political network, particularly in the European People’s Party, of which he was a vice-president; he was defeated by Juncker in his bid to become the party’s nominee for president of the Commission in 2014. Being French was also an advantage. It was obvious from the start that France would be the most vigilant and wary member state during the Brexit negotiations. A French negotiator could carry weight with the country he knew best, even if he was not close to Hollande or Macron.
Barnier’s diary, which is almost four hundred pages long, sets out how he went about his job, and describes the twists and turns of the tortuous negotiations between 2017 and 2020. Those immersed in Brexit will find it absorbing and evocative; the more general reader may find it some of it detailed and technical. The style is clear and sober, if lacking in fizz. It is by no means a classic political diary – there are few telling anecdotes, illuminating details or provocative reflections. Barnier describes (almost) everyone he meets in positive, or at worst neutral, terms ‑ malice is of course more entertaining. Most, though not all, of the best political diaries have been written by relatively minor figures (Chris Mullin, Alan Clark, Chips Channon), writing at a somewhat oblique angle, and they are often speckled with moments of self-awareness and even self-mockery – these are not Barnier traits.
The diary’s composition is mysterious. Unusually, there is no preface describing when and how he wrote or dictated the entries, how he decided which to select for publication, if he had any assistance in putting it together. To me it reads as if it might be based on his engagement diary, together with notes and recollections by himself and others which were subsequently amalgamated and polished, including with some benefit of hindsight. But this is only a guess. The book’s subtitle, “The Glorious Illusion”, is a translation of “La Grande Illusion” in the original French. Barnier confirms that the reference is to the Jean Renoir film – the clear implication being that the British were gripped by a great – surely not glorious – delusion.
Barnier put together a very able team of Commission officials, the taskforce, led by the exceptionally incisive Sabine Weyand, a German trade expert who had studied at Cambridge. Her French deputy, Stéphanie Riso, was very experienced in economic and financial issues. When they both moved on and up after the Withdrawal Agreement, they were replaced by two other able officials. The lead on Ireland was Nina Obermaier. The two Irish members of the taskforce were Tadgh Ó Briain, an energy expert, and Daniel Ferrie, the spokesman. The taskforce collectively brought great energy and expertise to researching and analysing the issues, to developing position papers and draft legal texts, and to negotiating in minute detail.
With equal thoroughness, Barnier established and, throughout the negotiations, constantly nurtured connections with a vast number of interested and influential actors: political leaders across Europe, ambassadors in Brussels, Commissioners and their senior officials, leading figures in the European Parliament. He regularly briefed the European Council and the Council (of Foreign/Europe Ministers). The diary does not reveal that he cultivated journalists directly (to which many politicians devote much time and energy) but at the end of negotiating sessions and on his many visits to capitals he would explain to the media, in a sober and clear way, how matters stood. Aware of the two-year timeframe within which the Withdrawal Agreement had to be finalised, he often repeated a pet phrase, “the clock is ticking”.
Barnier’s diary is essentially the story of how he and his team executed the instructions given to them by the European Council. This required a great deal of focus, command of detail, stamina, and patience. But while often tactically demanding it was strategically quite straightforward. There was little, if any, disagreement, or second-guessing, in the European Council, which was happy to trust Barnier. While, as usual, the European Parliament insisted on its prerogatives as it defined them, it did not interfere. Persistent British attempts to peel off some member states, notably Poland, made little headway, and any wobbles were quickly righted, not least through Irish diplomatic intervention. The consistent UK expectation that Germany and others would prioritise their national trade interests was always disappointed: for the German government, and for German business, the integrity of the Single Market came first.
The only real problem for Barnier on the EU side was Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s brilliant, ambitious, and arrogant chef de cabinet, then briefly secretary-general of the Commission. Barnier resisted numerous attempts by Selmayr to insert himself into the negotiations by establishing separate channels with the British and by promoting his own ideas. He says more about Selmayr than about anyone else on the EU side, and, uncharacteristically, lets his irritation show, while also recording their various reconciliations. Later, he also found it necessary to chastise the former deputy head of his team, Stéphanie Riso, who as a member of the Von der Leyen cabinet had contact with David Frost ‑ presumably to her embarrassment, she was recently praised by Dominic Cummings. Turf battles, disputes over crossed wires and wrangling about status are not unknown in any bureaucracy, though both the taskforce and indeed the Irish Brexit team largely avoided them.
Barnier and his team knew that they were the stronger side. The diary confirms in detail, without really changing the picture built up at the time, that the British were their inferiors in every way. Theresa May did not try to build a national consensus on objectives, and her party and government, and indeed parliament and the media, reflected British society by remaining deeply divided throughout. At the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 and at Lancaster House in January she set out belligerent red lines which seriously constrained her room for manoeuvre. Bit by bit over the next two years she sought to soften them. She triggered Article 50 on March 29th, 2017, thereby starting the two-year period in which a withdrawal agreement had to be reached – but without having decided on either her tactics or her strategy. She called a quite unnecessary general election in May 2017 and ended up leading a minority government propped up by the DUP. Bit by bit, often after some bluster (Boris Johnson as foreign secretary once said that the EU “could go whistle” for its money), British negotiators ended up by accepting the essentials of the EU’s positions, whether on the sequencing and structuring of the negotiations or on the solutions to key issues.
The arrival in power of Boris Johnson in July 2019, and the appointment of David Frost as his negotiator, changed the tone and style of the withdrawal negotiations (Barnier notes Irish Times speculation about the “madman theory”) but the only substantial change in the outcome was a return to a Northern Ireland-specific Protocol, rejected by Theresa May as something “no British Prime Minister could accept”. The 2020 negotiations on the future which followed retreated from even the modest level of ambition to which Johnson had earlier agreed. They ended up with a thin Trade and Cooperation Agreement, with the gaps we see today.
Barnier is polite and sometimes positive about his British interlocutors. He admires Theresa May’s determination and courage, though he grows increasingly sorry for and at times irritated by her. He has some affection for David Davis (a former Europe Minister colleague in the 1990s), though he quickly comes to realise that he is not really in charge of the negotiations or in command of the detail. Boris Johnson (as different from Barnier as could possibly be imagined) has a weak grasp of the issues. He is given to unfamiliar and UK-specific analogies and metaphors (such as his request to von der Leyen to “put a tiger in the tank” of the negotiations). But despite everything, Barnier finds him strangely likeable. David Frost is courteous, though often counterproductively hard-line. He keeps trying to bypass Barnier: in consequence their last meeting is “cold and professional”. Jeremy Corbyn is friendly but essentially views Brexit as a domestic political issue and is indifferent to the substance. Barnier speaks well of Nicola Sturgeon, Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn, and admires John Bercow’s bravura. The one politician to whom he clearly takes an instant dislike is Dominic Raab, in whose eye he detects a “messianic glint”. He notes Raab’s remarkable admission that he had not previously realised the importance of the Dover-Calais trade route. He dislikes attempts by some British figures to butter him up by quoting his hero Charles de Gaulle, especially when they seek to portray him as a Eurosceptic.
Barnier is very positive about the intelligence and professionalism of British officials, above all Olly Robbins (“a great British civil servant”), who led their side until the arrival of Johnson and Frost. Such praise is warranted: but as those officials who knew most about the EU had been sidelined, the British team, including Robbins, had little or no experience of the substance or processes of the EU and were thus at a disadvantage from the start.
The tale is therefore of British disorganisation, misunderstanding, division, and delusion consistently crashing up against the impregnable defences erected by the EU and manned by Barnier. He sees it as his duty to explain continually “in a pedagogic (a favourite word) manner” the logical consequences of the EU’s principles and the UK’s own red lines.
Inevitably, this account of sober and effective professionalism is less than thrilling. The drama and excitement of the plotting, the betrayals, and the sheer chaos are to be found on the other side: the referendum itself, May’s botched election and growing desperation, Johnson’s resignation as foreign secretary and his later return in triumph, judges described as “enemies of the people”, the tumultuous debates and votes in parliament, even the public demonstrations. Barnier notes these events, often with a sense of amazement that a “great country” like the UK is putting itself through such turmoil for an outcome he regards as senseless. But for detailed description and analysis of the British story it will be necessary to look elsewhere.
Barnier’s treatment of the Irish border issue is straightforward. The European Council identified it as an important element of the withdrawal negotiations, and hence one which had to be resolved before moving on to talk about the future relationship. The avoidance of a hard border was essential; “creative and imaginative” solutions were necessary. Ireland only came to the fore after initial months of focus on finance and citizenship. Unfortunately, the diary says relatively little about how thinking evolved in the autumn of 2017, a crucial period which ended with the concept of NI/EU, and hence North/South, regulatory alignment, where necessary, firmly established. It was described as a third-choice backstop, but nobody on the EU side expected the first two options, either an overall agreement making it unnecessary, or “specific solutions” devised by the British, to prove possible or workable, given that the objective was to avoid all checks and controls on the island.
As David Frost has observed, the EU, by accepting the Irish government’s framing of the protection of the Good Friday Agreement as requiring the avoidance of a physical border or related checks and controls, and its stress on North-South co-operation and the all-island economy, effectively defined the ground on which future battles were to be fought. In December 2017 the British, eager to move on, perhaps – at least at political level – not fully understanding what they were doing, and maybe thinking the issue could be parked and later re-opened, signed up to these principles and to regulatory alignment. A last-minute revolt by the DUP led to the inclusion of some more unionist-friendly language, which Barnier admits made the text less clear, but the EU side always saw the new elements as secondary.
The British were then surprised by the speed with which the Commission moved to prepare a full legal text. Its rejection by Theresa May meant that the Irish issue would continue to dominate for another eighteen months, with ever more frantic attempts by the British to find ways around it. Barnier was prepared to adjust his text, but not to depart from the fundamental need for alignment. This phase of “de-dramatisation” culminated in the proposal that the UK as a whole should, at least temporarily, remain in the customs union, to eliminate one important area of difference between the situations of Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The DUP rejected this, as internal market checks were to remain. In any event, as subsequent Commons votes showed, the proposal was always bound to provoke a massive revolt on the Tory side, given that it would have negated what many saw as a basic purpose of Brexit. Labour also voted against, because they hoped to take advantage of a Tory-made crisis and because many hoped for a second referendum.
The Johnson government, after swearing mighty oaths and refusing to engage meaningfully, changed course, and signed up at the last minute to a deal which differed only cosmetically from that proposed by the Commission long before.
Barnier describes these developments, but he does not devote much time to analysing them, taking it as self-evident that the EU’s basic approach was essential to preserve peace. He writes affectionately about Ireland and about his visits to it, and in particular his address to the joint houses of the Oireachtas. He recalls separate meetings in 2000 with John Hume and David Trimble in which they both say “the same thing to me in the same words”: “What brought us to the table was not London, not Belfast, not Dublin, but Brussels and the PEACE programme.” Whatever about Hume, it is hard to imagine Trimble engaging in such plámás, let alone believing it. Barnier enjoys a Brussels St Patrick’s Day reception at which he speaks a little Irish. He hopes to retrace General de Gaulle’s visit to Sneem but does not have time. He speaks particularly positively about Leo Varadkar ‑ “a courageous young man” who, unlike Boris Johnson, speaks with “great poise and lucidity” and enjoys the “justified confidence” of other leaders. He describes Simon Coveney as “always perceptive, methodical and well-informed”, and confirms “a relationship of trust and confidence” with officials, particularly John Callinan, who as the Taoiseach’s Sherpa was the main Irish channel to Sabine Weyand and Olly Robbins.
Not mentioned in the diary is that day-to-day, in particular during negotiating sessions with the British, extremely close contact with the taskforce was maintained by the Permanent Representation in Brussels, led by Declan Kelleher, with Émer Deane. Back in Dublin, the Department of Foreign Affairs managed the Irish diplomatic effort, co-ordinated the work of Departments, prepared detailed briefing papers and analyses, and led planning on how to respond to no deal. All Irish embassies reported and lobbied constantly, the work done in London being extraordinary. I am satisfied that we all, politicians and officials, worked effectively and harmoniously as a team. I think though that while the scale and complexity of the operation was unprecedented the political challenges encountered and overcome in the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement were greater.
Barnier describes visits to the border and to Northern Ireland, and good meetings with business and civil society. Predictably, relations with the DUP are tense (as he finds like the internal dynamic between Arlene Foster and Diane Dodds MEP). He consistently finds DUP representatives argumentative, irritating, and unconstructive, as he keeps explaining to them that what the EU is proposing is the logical result of the Brexit they voted for and denying that it seeks to divide Northern Ireland from Great Britain. In an awkward formulation he says that “nothing constructive can be expected of this party, which fears movement towards the reunification of the island” – I doubt that he wishes to suggest that the Protocol was a move towards unity
I sometimes ask myself about the handling of Northern Ireland in the negotiations. Could there have been another way which would have resolved the problem more quickly, made negotiations easier in general, and avoided the very difficult current divisions? The term “hard border” originally had the benefit of being undefined. Maintenance of the Common Travel Area ensured that there would be no blocks to travel for school, work or healthcare, and the restoration of security installations was unthinkable. These were the things the public apparently saw as most threatening. For the first six months after the referendum the Irish government was prepared to look at the possibility of some checks and controls on the island. At the Magill summer school in July 2016, Enda Kenny mused about smart technology and licence plate recognition. The Revenue Commissioners developed some interesting ideas about how to manage trade away from the border, and the Department of Agriculture met informally with the Commission. This was all quite inchoate and undeveloped, but there were avenues which might have been explored. Would low-key activity some distance from the border itself have posed a serious risk of violence? In no deal planning, these issues again presented themselves, but fortunately did not eventually require any decisions.
However, Kenny changed the Irish approach in January 2017, arguing for an undefined “political solution”. This was then reinforced in 2017 by Leo Varadkar, the new Taoiseach, and Simon Coveney, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs. It became our firm position that any checks or controls anywhere on the island would constitute a hard border. The Commission picked this up and moved to make regulatory alignment the centrepiece of its approach. One good reason for our changing our position was the emphatic way in which Theresa May had set out her red lines, which would clearly lead to very significant divergence between the UK and EU. But another was that regular Commission officials (not Barnier and the taskforce) adopted a completely orthodox approach to the full application of EU law in any arrangement. We would have been banging our heads against a brick wall had we continued to look for more flexibility at that time.
This is speculation, and on balance there was probably no practical alternative to what did emerge: but there is no sign that Barnier ever asked himself the question.
In addition, could the Union have been more open to exploring Theresa May’s Chequers proposals of July 2018? They marked a further, if incomplete, move towards some kind of acceptance of the customs union and the single market for goods. Barnier is quite clear that this was never a runner, though he does not approve of the humiliating way in which its dismissal at a Salzburg summit was encapsulated in a tweet by Donald Tusk depicting a cake, with the words “no cherries”. However, the consistent EU emphasis on the integrity of the Single Market conveniently ignored the fact that free movement of services, the economic sector in which the UK was strongest, was considerably less developed than the other freedoms. So maybe some pragmatic balance between the freedoms might have been explored, also given the EU’s advantage in trade in goods and agricultural products. Barnier reacts furiously to a proposal along these lines by a group of leading European economists, including the French éminence grise Jean Pisani-Ferry, claiming that their paper “reads as if it was written by a British author”.
Putting flesh on the bones of the concept would have been hugely difficult. The EU side was also acutely aware of May’s political weakness after the resignations of Johnson, Davis, and others, and disinclined to take serious and probably pointless risks to save her. However, there is no sign that Barnier gave any thought to alternatives. Nor did the member states as a group engage in any reflection on strategy at this time –they were quite happy to allow the Commission to proceed along established lines. This undoubtedly led to EU victory in the negotiations, or at least to an imbalance of loss between it and the UK. This hypothetical approach would probably have been impossible to implement. But a counterfactual world in which Theresa May could have been saved, a softer Brexit and a friendlier future relationship achieved, and Boris Johnson kept out of Downing Street has appeal.
Barnier is now a candidate for the nomination of his party, Les Républicains, for next spring’s French presidential election. As mentioned earlier, he is not well-known in France, and this book will not change that. His rivals for the nomination, Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse, are presidents of major regions. Bertrand seems at this early stage to have a reasonably comfortable lead, but, whoever the nominee, they will find it hard to get past the first round. If they do, Bertrand – a grittier figure, with more of the common touch – could probably mount a stronger challenge to Macron.
However, Barnier’s poll ratings have risen somewhat in the last two months. This results from his adoption of a hostile approach to extra-European immigration and his apparent readiness to challenge the primacy of European law in this area. This has been gleefully seized on by his British critics, but also condemned roundly by many in Paris and in Brussels. In interviews, Barnier has said that, unlike the Brexiters, he is not talking about free movement inside the EU, but he can sound a little uneasy and embarrassed.
As the 2016 election showed, a lot could happen over the next six months, but unless Barnier’s campaign develops unexpected momentum he may have damaged his reputation to no effect. It would be a pity is this were to be the last act of a long and distinguished career. As the diary shows, he should be remembered for his determination and skill in amply fulfilling the Brexit mandate given him by EU leaders.
Rory Montgomery is a former Irish diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the European Union and Ambassador to France. During the 2014-19 period he was centrally involved in the Irish approach to EU-UK relations and the Brexit negotiations, first as Second Secretary General in the Department of the Taoiseach and then in the same role in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He is an Honorary Professor of Practice at the Mitchell Institute, Queen’s University Belfast, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.