In 1937 Jean Renoir directed a film called ‘La Grande Illusion’ about French prisoners-of-war during World War I. The title came from a book published in 1909 by Norman Angell called ‘The Great Illusion’ which argued that war is futile because of the common economic interests of all European nations. This is, of course, the idea that led to the creation of the EU. Now in 2021 Michel Barnier has written his own ‘La grande illusion: Journal secret du Brexit (2016/2020)’ (pub. Editions Gallimard; €23). It’s no longer secret, of course, and for that we must be grateful. The quote from King Lear is on the flyleaf: a perfectly reasonable summary of the British government’s behaviour during the Brexit negotiations.
There is a cliché to the effect that ‘history is written by the victors’ but, pending publication of, say, Raab’s memoirs (can’t wait), there is no reason why we should discount Barnier’s version. Every point he makes can be verified by independent sources. Follow it for a straightforward chronological account of the post-Referendum negotiations, but the real significance of this book lies in its clinical exposure of British duplicity. Whether this is the result of a narrow public-school education or the inevitable by-product of a certain set of ingrained arrogant attitudes (Brits good: foreigners bad) remains to be seen.
Barnier writes an admirably extremely clear French, and – if you’re worried – his book is peppered with English words and phrases: “backstop”, “no deal”, “level playing field”, “cherry-picking” and “having one’s cake and eating it” amongst others. There is also a lot of personal material: Barnier’s wife puts in the occasional guest appearance and the births of his first two grandchildren are duly noted. His political career is alluded to and we learn that he contracted, and recovered from, Covid.
Throughout the book a number of themes are of paramount importance.
Firstly, there is Barnier’s determination to ensure that all the EU Member States are on side, that they fully endorse his negotiating mandate and that they are united in their objective. As part of his strategy to ensure unity among the Member States Barnier spends an enormous amount of time travelling around European capitals and other cities. In one nine-month period we find him in The Hague, Bucharest, Warsaw, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Paris, London, Florence and Dublin.
Secondly, there is the point that the British have no chance of securing an à la carte withdrawal agreement.
Finally, there is the not unreasonable expectation that the Brits might actually state what their negotiating objectives are. They must respect certain principles, of course – in particular the need for a level playing field. In other words, act like serious adults. Barnier quotes Saint-Exupéry to the effect that ‘Negotiating is not just looking at each other. It’s both looking in the same direction’. [All translations are by the reviewer.]
Cast of colourful characters
Along the way Barnier treats us to some interesting pen portraits and anecdotes. He is surprisingly well-disposed towards Theresa May, for example. Following a discussion with Olly Robbins he says ‘I can understand the difficult position Theresa May is in. For her it’s not really a question of negotiating with the EU but more of tough negotiations, almost hour by hour, with her own ministers’ (p. 201). Barnier is unfailingly polite about Robbins who, as a civil servant, can hardly be held responsible for an elected minister’s ineptitude.
Barnier is also invariably – and often unnecessarily – polite, even in respect of people I assume he regards with contempt. He treats David Davis as an amiable buffoon. Davis requests a meeting with Barnier, the sole purpose of which is so that the former ‘can say we have met so that he is still almost a credible negotiator’ (p. 203). When we reach the second round of negotiations, Barnier and his two colleagues arrive with full ring-binders in front of them on the table. ‘Oddly enough, Davis and the other British negotiators have come empty-handed’ (p. 103). Barnier says he has a ‘conversation presque amicale’ with Davis, but following this meeting says ‘my feeling is that the Brits are talking to themselves … and that they under-estimate the legal complexity of the divorce and its consequences’.
On 19 July 2018 Dominic Raab is appointed Brexit minister – ‘There is something about his look which I find surprising, like an almost messianic gleam’ (p. 224). On 10 August Theresa May goes to Bregançon with some of her ministers. ‘Le plus caricatural [ridiculous, grotesque] …’ is the new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who is going round European capitals saying ‘Help us or Brexit will be a tragedy’ (p. 228). Later Hunt appears as ‘assez bizarre’ (p. 329).
By contrast, Barnier is impressed by ‘courageux’ Dominic Grieve with his ‘français impeccable’ (p. 149). He refers to his colleague Sabine Weyand as ‘an unparalleled negotiator, very elegant and with an art deco look to her’ (p. 139), which I am still trying to work out.
The British approach
Barnier asks a fairly obvious question: did the result of the Referendum actually give the British government carte blanche for a radical divorce? Throughout the negotiating process he is obliged to remind the Brits that it was the UK, not the EU, that sought the divorce.
On 19 June 2018 he writes ‘It’s not always nice being the bad guy but my job is to tell the truth about the practical and legal consequences of leaving the EU’ (p. 206). And later on: ‘We have negotiated with the UK, never against the UK’ (p. 275). Then on 11 February 2019: ‘I can’t understand how a decision as serious and as historic as Brexit can be taken with a minimum of dialogue and national consensus’ (p. 300). A few days later (11 March 2019): ‘These negotiations require flexibility and the willingness to adapt. The British are incapable of planning things in advance’ (p. 305).
On finances: ‘The British negotiators have clearly been instructed not to engage in any discussion of figures …’ (!). But: ‘To be honest … I don’t envy them having to report to a group of politicians who simply refuse to accept the direct consequences of their actions and the positions they adopted a year ago’ (p. 105).
10 Dec 2018: Will May put the deal to a vote? ‘Brexit is looking more and more like a tragicomedy and we don’t know whether the ending will be tragic or happy’ (p. 280).
9 January 2019: ‘Every day that passes brings the proof that the Brits are not being told the truth and that their ministers… are lying by omission only a few days from an historic vote in the Commons’ (p. 286).
What comes through loud and clear is the utter deviousness of the British side – endlessly agreeing to something verbally then denying they had done so (e.g. the Northern Ireland backstop). A lot of time could have been saved if the British had approached the negotiations as ‘honest brokers’ rather than shady chancers.
On 4 September 2019 Barnier notes that:
‘Frost keeps promising to make specific proposals for replacing the backstop; he first promised this in early August, then in mid-August, then 23 August, then 28 August then today – but still has nothing to offer the UK’.
On 8 Oct 2019 Charles Michel (President of the Council) tweets:
‘Boris Johnson, this is not about trying to win a stupid blame game. It’s about the future of Europe and the United Kingdom and the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal; you don’t want an extension and you don’t want to revoke. So, what do you want?’
Finally, on 29 January 2020 the European Parliament adopts the withdrawal agreement by 621 votes to 49, with 13 abstentions. ‘I am somewhat amused to note that Farage and cronies have finally voted for an agreement they have spent three years criticising’ (p. 404).
Barnier’s book will leave any British reader feeling deeply ashamed of being British. Or, at least, angry at being stuck with a political system that appears to reward moral defectives.
Your reviewer’s rating is ***** – “Buy it”.
Read it either in French or wait until September for the English translation.