Sunday, August 22, 2021

LA GRANDE ILLUSION


General

We are used, at this stage, to a range of political and administration people producing their autobiographies, so anything new on the scene needs to be good.

Well, you won't get better than this. It's not an autobiography as such. It is Barnier's perspective on the Brexit negotiations. It's structured in the form of a diary but just including days of particular significance. Otherwise we'd be here all night. As it is, we have some 540 pages to get through.

For me it was a page turner. I followed Brexit fairly closely, including all the obscene headlines in the British tabloids and, of course, Barnier's press conferences. So, in a sense, there was nothing substantially new for me in the book. But it was fascinating to read Barnier's relatively unrestrained take on things and to appreciate the scale, intensity, and quality of EU resources which were mobilised in the face of Brexit. And, of course, on the other side the thrashing around of the British trying to square the circle, or pretending to do so.

Barnier has some respect for Theresa May, who, though a remainer, was trying to deliver a decent Brexit on foot of the UK referendum. It was clearly an impossible task, particularly given her red lines. He also respected Olly Robbins who, unlike most of the Brits, knew what was what. But his contempt for Boris Johnson and his crew shines through. I'm not surprised. Boris is a disgusting creature with no redeeming features as far as I'm concerned.

As far as this blog post is concerned, I set out with a wildly ambitious task in mind, a comprehensive review of this wonderful book. I took copious notes (20 pages) when reading the book, which unfortunately doesn't have an index, so that I would be able to quickly find those points which had particularly struck me.

Anyway, I kept coming back to the post and doing another bit until exhaustion began to set in. So I decided to call it a day at what you see below. I may be tempted to come back and tweak it, but that's for another day. In any event, my copious notes will hopefully prove useful when the book begins to be discussed in detail in these islands.

Choice of Barnier

I was not at all aware of Michel Barnier when this whole thing started, but looking back from this vantage point he was an inspired choice.

This was not a job for a civil servant, no matter how experienced. Barnier was political. He had been a young political activist - in his own words: le jeune militant gaulliste que j'étais. He had held local office in Savoie He had been a minister in the French government and a Commissioner in Brussels.

It is clear from reading his book that all of this experience stood him in good stead. He was at home with the full spectrum of people he was likely to encounter in the Brexit saga and he didn't wait for them to come to him. He reached out to people to an extraordinary degree.

All of this contributed to his task of keeping the 27 member states united in the face of vicious and malicious provocation from the British side. He worked tirelessly to keep everyone on board at all levels of the game.

He was trusted by all the players on the EU side and he repaid that trust handsomely.

I followed Brexit very closely from the beginning. I felt personally offended by it. My British friends were at the mercy of a greedy crowd of elite gobshites, and the fools who were taken in by them, even as the UK commenced its long and painful journey down the tubes. More than that, Ireland was likely to suffer serious collateral damage from this mad decision in which we had no say. When push came to shove, Ireland, North and South, was an irrelevancy to these people.

I watched all of Barnier's press conferences and marvelled at how this man, who must have been bruised and battered from banging his head off a stone wall, could appear so calm, so reasonable, and so civilised, at the end of a gruelling and fruitless round of negotiations. The EU side was putting in a huge effort with highly competent individuals giving their all and making huge personal sacrifices. On the other side were the British, farting around purportedly trying to square the circle, an impossibility of their own making.

Barnier had a phrase for achieving the calm: nous maitriserons nos nerfs. He vowed at the beginning to keep a calm face on things regardless: Depuis le premier jour, j'ai choisi de ne montrer aucune émotion ni aucune passion dans cette négotiation. Les tabloïdes britanniques en seraient friands.

He stuck to his resolve right through thick and thin, though he was getting a bit pointed towards the end of the day. The book is still an understatement but you can more clearly feel the emotion coming through from time to time, more particularly in the later stage of the negotiations..

Arising from his past, Barnier had contacts, acquaintances and friends everywhere. The range of his reach was astounding and it in no small way contributed to his success in this mission. Success, that is, in all the circumstances. Had the British been negotiating up front and in good faith, then despite the insanity of the original brexit decision, a more benign outcome would probably have been possible.

Photos

Although the book design is very plain and the reader's main interest will be in the text, Barnier has included a raft of photos, some of them very interesting indeed.

He has even included a selection of newspaper cartoons all of which are good and some of which are very pointed.

I have a favourite two photos in particular which I tweeted as soon as I got the book and checked them out.


This photo became very famous at the beginning of the negotiations. I think it was the first photo of the negotiators. You could, in a way, take it as summing up the whole negotiation. Note that the EU side do at least have some bits of paper in front of them while the UK side, and David Davis in particular, have virtually none.

This was to be the pattern of the negotiations. The EU side was always prepared up to the hilt while the Brits winged it, throwing ideological squibs all over the place.


Teatime with the Taoiseach neatly bookended the UK period of membership. When de Gaulle vetoed UK membership for the second time in 1967, one of his reasons (not the most serious) was: ils boivent du thé, whereas coffee was the norm on the continent.

Not a reason that would stand on its own surely, but it did in a funny way illustrate the difference in culture between the (then) EEC member states and the British.

I was so overenthused by these two photos that I couldn't resist a wee tweak. If you haven't spotted it you'll just have to go and compare with the originals. Buying the book would be a good way.

The Withdrawal Agreement

Clearly a major part of the narrative is taken up with the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). This is effectively the divorce settlement. It has three main concerns:
  • financial arrangements where the UK is required to settle its contingent liabilities with the Union. This is in no way a punishment payment as portrayed by much of the British media. It is simply the UK contribution to financing decisions taken by the 28 but which are now left to the 27 to implement (eg contribution to pensions of EU officials, including the British which will fall for payment by the EU.)
  • reciprocal rights of citizens where there are existing EU citizens residing in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.
  • Northern Ireland whose border with the South now becomes an external border of the EU and if nothing was done this would become a hard border where there was effectively none since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.
On the financial arrangements the UK hummed and hawed and threatened to leave without paying a penny but finally buckled. The reciprocal rights of citizens proved difficult as this was a matter of national competence on the EU side and the British had a hostile view of all immigrants. My impression is that though this was eventually agreed it is still up in the air to some extent, at least at the margins.

The North/South border on the island of Ireland proved tricky right up to the end, and although there was a complicated agreement giving double status to Northern Ireland re the UK and EU markets, the location of the EU external border effectively on the Irish sea is currently under strain.

Barnier has pointed out, and we all know, that there has to be a border somewhere: Les contrôles pour protéger le marché interieur doivent être mis en oeuvre quelque part. Soit autour de l'île, soit à l'interieur de l'île. Ou alors sur le continent, avec le risque d'exclure l'Irlande du marché unique, ce que nous ne voulons pas.

This last remark was clearly of concern to us Irish and in my view should still be, particularly with the UK penchant for renaging on treaties.

Just by the way, if you are put out that I didn't translate the French, you can copy and paste into Google translate which, these days, does a pretty good job.

Day by Day

The bulk of the book, some 500 out of 540 pages, is in the form of a diary, with text for significant days along the way.

I followed Brexit very closely at the time and this was like living through it all over again but from a slightly different and more detailed perspective. My sympathies all along were with the EU side.

I could see that the UK wanted to have its cake and eat it - le beurre et le prix du beurre as Barnier puts it. Unlike the UK apparently, I knew what the Customs Union and the Single Market were. The first being one of the earliest characteristics of the EEC and the second its most cherished achievement to date, no small thanks to Margaret Thatcher.

These two items effectively set the parameters for what the EU could and could not agree to. Like Barnier, I was measuring up every concession against this, and I have to say that at times I thought the EU went too far in making concessions.

You also have to remember the nature of the Union. It is a law based mixture of EU and national competencies. There has to be a legal basis for everything the EU does as EU. Hence, inter alia, the need during the negotiations for the EU side to keep producing legal texts.

On the British side, as I learned in school, the British Parliament is supreme and can effectively do as it likes. Add to this UK bad faith in the negotiations and you have a lethal mixture. No wonder the negotiations were so tortuous and went on for so long.

If you want to check out my contemporaneous reactions along the way you can go to my blog post Brexit Musings. The chronology starts at the bottom with the most recent posts on the top.

I'm not going to go seriatim through Barnier's diary entries. That would be too long and be potentially confusing. Instead I'm going to take a few themes and tap his views on them.

Sequencing

In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.
Article 50 of the EU Treaty on the withdrawal of a member state is very short. The only guidance in the article on sequencing is that shown above. It simply says there has to be a withdrawal agreement which takes account of the withdrawing state's future relationship (FR) with the Union.

Now, you could say that this implies parallel negotiation of the withdrawal agreement and the agreement on the future relationship. How else is the latter to be taken into account in the former. But that's not what happened.

The EU took the initiative and said the withdrawal agreement had to be concluded before any negotiations would start on a future relationship. To square this circle the Union envisaged a parallel negotiation on a political framework which would govern the detailed negotiations which were to follow on the precise terms of the future relationship. This was to become the Political Agreement (PA). Moreover the Union said it would refuse to negotiate the detailed future relationship agreement until the UK had actually left the Union and was in a state of transition. The transition would mean the UK being treated as if it was still a member [with the exception of any participation in current decision making].

All of this had been carefully thought through by the EU and it worked to the UK's disadvantage. The UK realised this and tried to change it but finally buckled.

Nevertheless, in the course of the negotiations the UK tried constantly to reclaim some ground in making parts of the withdrawal agreement conditional on agreement on the future relationship.

Barnier's succinct view on this is very clear: l'objective est d'acheter des morceaux du marché unique avec des dettes du passé.

One aim of the UK in trying to keep the WA open until the FR was being negotiated was to isolate Ireland and use it as a bargaining chip at the end. In June 2018 Olly Robbins came to town wanting to sew up a load of issues before the next Council but Ireland was not included.

La stratégie britannique est claire: isoler la question irlandaise pour que, en octobre, elle soit la seule ouverte au moment de conclure, en espérant que les 27 la renverront au débat sure la relation future. C'est précisement ce que je ne veux pas. Cette question est tellement sensible et grave pour tous qu'il faut la traiter en toute hypotèse dans l'accord de retrait.

The UK clearly needed a transition period after the actual withdrawal particularly with the sequencing set by the EU Council. But they were never happy with the Withdrawal Agreement. Barnier's answer was firm: cette période de transition devrait faire partie de l'accord de retrait au titre de l'article 50. Sans accord de retrait il n'y a pas de transition. C'est un point juridique.

No Deal?

In March 2019 as the final deadline for exit approached there was a distinct possibility of a no deal. Theresa May was at the pin of her collar before the European Council arguing for another extension in the hope of getting her WA through the British parliament. There was a general air of exasperation among Council participants and even suggestions that if UK was to go they should go now. One participant put it to May that the Council was not willing to change one line of the agreement and if UK exited with no deal Leo Varadkar would be obliged to introduce controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Theresa May répond que pendant un certain temps après un no deal en Irlande de notre coté, nous ne ferons pas de contrôles.

Which just about shows how little she understood, or cared about, what was going on.

Splitting the 27



From the beginning I feared that the UK would try to split the 27 and that they stood a fair chance of success. Brexit could be the beginning of the end of the EU. I feared that in the course of the detailed negotiations that would be required to determine the future relationship, member states would seize the opportunity to open up other already done deals and that the whole thing would fall apart. Hence the picture above of Theresa May and Pandora's Box.

It is in no small measure due to Barnier that this did not happen. The book reveals his interminable round of capitals to keep member states on board and to apprise them of the ongoing negotiations. Nothing short of a miracle in my view.

In the book Barnier reveals the many attempts by the UK to break EU solidarity and I'm reproducing a few of these below:

Je vois bien que le lobbying britannique a produit ses effets et que sur certain sujets liés aux droits des citoyens, au regroupement familial ou a la portabilité des prestations sociales, la Pologne est moins intransigeante qu'elle ne l'était au début des négotiations. Elle reste néanmoins solidaire de l'union européenne ...

At the November 2018 European Council. Finalement Theresa May, dans cette ambiance assez grave, remercie les deux équipes de négotiations. 'Il est important que les Europeéens aient été unis' dit elle, après avoir, elle et ses ministres, tout fait pour nous diviser.

Depuis le début, les britanniques jouent sur ces deux tableaux et cherchent à ouvrir avec Martin Selmayr une deuxième ligne de négotiation. Et je vois bien qu'il a du mal a résister ...

Dans la voiture le téléphone sonne. C'est Angela Merkel qui veut me rendre compte précisément de l'entretien téléphonique qu'elle a eu à l'instant avec Boris Johnson. 'J'ai exposé clairement nos positions, et dit que nous étions tous derrière toi.'

Barnier has included the above piece in a section entitled, mischievously or maliciously, LONDON CALLING.

Boris Johnson, de manière assez maladroite, évoque une rencontre qu'il souhaite avec Emmanuel Macron pour parler de la pêche et avec Angela Merkel pour discuter level playing field Ce sont là deux competences communautaires qui doivent être traitées par la Commission européenne. Ursula von der Leyen le lui dit. On apprendra quelques heures plus tard que le président français comme la chancelière allemande ont refusé de prendre Boris Johnson au téléphone, afin de préserver une ligne unique de négotiation.

Total transparency

From the beginning, Barnier made it clear that there would be total transparency of the negotiations as far as the EU was concerned. He felt this would be necessary to keep all the EU parties on board and it is in keeping, in any event, with the current Commission style - what is not published will be leaked and you lose control.

This was not the British view: Au début de ce premier round, David Frost m'a dit son souci que l'on reste très prudents dans notre communication extériere: 'Vis-à-vis de la presse, nous devons nous comporter comme des jésuites'. Je suis naturellement d'accord pour demander aux négotiateurs, de part et d'autre, d'éviter pendant les rounds les 'petites phrases' ou les briefings informels toujours un peu partiaux et jamais très productifs. Mais je tiens au terme de chaque round, à rendre compte à la presse, et donc au public, de l'avancée des discussions.

Nos discussions sont nourries de nouvelles propositions de texte envoyées par le Royaume-Uni, mais je regrette que les Britanniques ne souhaitent pas rendre ces textes publics, ce qui nous empêche de les communiquer aux États membres et au Parlement européen.

Bad faith


There is no end to the examples testifying to the bad faith of the British negotiators, or should I say the politicians in particular. I remember the remarks passed in the course of the WA negotiations when some matters needed to be agreed to pass on to the next stage. David Davis remarked that the agreement was just words on paper, with the implication that they could be ignored, and Michael Gove stated explicitly that any agreement entered into now could be reneged on later.

On the Joint Report which needed to show sufficient progress on the WA negotiation to go to the next stage, and which involved intense negotiation in its final stage: David Davis, qui n'en manque décidément pas une, indique á la télévision britannique que ce Joint Report n'est pas 'contraignant' pour le Royaume-Uni, comme si la parole de la première ministre pouivait être provisoire ou contestée.

In this process, Barnier has the measure of David Davis, who is more often absent than present when the going gets tough. He knows who to thank for agreement on the Joint Report. Je fais de même (remercier) avec les negotiateurs brittanique en mettant l'accent sur le rôle d'Olly Robbins qui a été déterminant, plutôt que sur David Davis, qui se contente de suivre et d'éviter des coups.

Again Davis is no where to be seen. Au terme d'une semaine un peu chaotique de négotiations avec les Britanniques, je retrouve la salle de presse du Berlaymont, seul puisque David Davis a fait le choix de ne pas venir cette semaine.

C'est une grande journée qui commence puisque David Davis revient enfin à Bruxelles. Il n'y est pas venu depuis le mois de décembre, et entre-temps nous ne nous sommes vus qu'une seule fois, à Londres. This in March 2018.

And a more considered analysis of Davis & his behaviour: David Davis, parce que son agenda est davantage politique et interieur, utilise une technique que j'ai bien comprise. Il se met en retrait délibérément à tous le moments de négotiation et de compromis, ne veut pas être lié par des concessions régulieres et multiples. En revanche, il accept à chaque étape le paquet des compromis réalisés par nos équipes et trouve les mots pour les habiller, les banaliser dans certains cas ou les valoriser.

When it later came to the start of the negotiations on the future relationship, Barnier is astounded by David Frost's brash opening statement. Frost clearly states that the British Government ne se sent pas lié par la déclaration politique going on to "explain" that nous n'avons pas la même lecture de la déclaration politique which makes you wondered why anyone bothered painfully negotiating it. The answer, of course, is that some agreed "piece of paper" was needed in order to have the WA adopted. The constant blatant bad faith of the British throughout the negotiations is almost beyond belief.

Striking Quotes

Some quotes to give you a flavour of Barnier.

Il y a encore aujour'hui au Royaume-Uni une réelle incompréhension des conséquences objective et parfois méchaniques du choix britannique de quitter le marché unique et l'union douanière

In November 2016, facing the press, he decided to make his opening remarks in English. Je reconnais que j'ai beaucoup de progrès à faire dans cette langue. J'ai pourtant été à bonne école !" He goes on to explain how at an earlier function where he was to give a speech as French Minister for Foreign Affairs, he once asked the Queen (of England) how he should render Vive l'Entente Cordiale in English. Her majesty replied Long live the Entente cordiale. Some of the foreign press, however, took issue with his delivery of this phrase claiming it should have been Long life to the Entente Cordiale.. Barnier was, however, happy with his delivery literally in the Queen's English. Je n'aurais cependent jamais pu rêver d'un professeur aussi eminent ...

On Tim Barrow: Son sens du devoir l'emporte sans doute sur sa conviction intime.

On Martin Selmayr: Il ait du mal à accepter les limites de sa fonction.

On Leo Varadkar: Je suis frappé par la confiance justifiée que tous font à leur collegue, le Premier ministre irlandais, Leo varadkar. In fact he goes on to quote Angela Merkel: Sur l'Irlande je suiverai ce que dira Leo.

On the UK: Il n'y a plus grand chose the rationnel ni d'objectif dans le Royaume-Uni d'aujourd hui.

On Jeremy Hunt: le ministre assez bizarre des Affaires etrangères.

Harking back to when de Gaulle died: Mon engagement quelques années plus tôt dans le mouvement des jeunes gaullistes rest une de mes principales fiertés.

On UK pulling back on the Internal Market Bill: Beaucoup de temps perdu et de polémiques pour finalement et simplement honorer sa signature et appliquer ce qui a été décidés et ratifié.

Nous n'allons pas marchander nos valeurs au bénéfice de l'économie britannique.

An Irish Angle


Dan Ferrie was a valued member of the EU task force. I almost feel I know him from his appearences, live and on screen, at the Commission's daily press conferences. He is master of his brief and presents in an understated style. Barnier holds him in high regard.

Dan Ferrie notre jeune press officer irlandais particulièrement dynamique et toujours enthousiaste ... and this, as Barnier lists the expertise available to him through individual members of his team, in January 2020 Celle de Dan Ferrie, promu porte parole, nous le sera autant en matière de communications, en équipe avec Matthieu.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Dan was feeding Barnier his Gaeilge which was always impeccable. On the other hand, this might have come from Tadhg O'Briain, a Northern Irish member of Barnier's team, the spelling of whose name might suggest some competence in the language.

Review

There is an interesting, but grudging, review of the book by the UK's last EU Commissioner, Sir Julian King, in the July issue of Prospect.

There is a much more positive review by Jonathan Powell in the Guardian, though I don't agree with his criticism of Barnier's style nor do I agree that Barnier can't boast a job well done. Barnier accomplished the mammoth task of keeping the 27 united and seeing off all attempts by the UK to open up parallel channels of communication. It is the British who cannot make such a boast.



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