Britain is currently in the last phase of a post WWII nervous breakdown.
I am reminded of an interplay from Shakespeare's Henry IV that I did in school:
Stefaan de Rynck was the EU Brexit negotiators' point man on the British. It was his job to interpret this Alice in Wonderland for Barnier. In doing so he dug deep into the British psyche and in particular that of its current ruling class and what he came up with was very unpleasant indeed.
The dominant theme that comes across are empty British threats born out of a complete lack of understanding of how the EU works and what it is about. Add these to Theresa May's original contradictory red lines and you're really on another planet, as Stefaan points out.
At the end of the day, the Brits did themselves down. And when you added in the DUP, who are a bunch of troglodytal psychos, you get a really lethal mix.
If you take a brief look back to before and during the UK referendum on Brexit, the people did not know what they were doing when they voted for Brexit, nor indeed did their "masters" who were too busy leading them up the garden path with an agenda of their own.
They were lied to and misled in the run up to the referendum and right throughout the Brexit process itself.
This was the last gasp of a former inglorious empire. The final sunset clause.
I didn't quite get this during the process itself and I was constantly surprised at how, when the various factions at home had beaten one another into submission and sort of agreed a line that frankly didn't make any sense, they thought the battle was won and the EU (Johnny Foreigner) was duty bound to accept it.
This then led to standoffs, threats, and timewasting which could have been used in productive negotiation. That the outcome was suboptimal should surprise nobody.
But enough of me. This is Stefaan's book and not mine.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book every bit as much as I did Barnier's. Different styles, different personalities, and somewhat different tasks in the same process.
Barnier's huge achievement was to hold the 27 together. This was anything but a foregone conclusion at the outset of the negotiations and it took good judgement and an enormous amount of hard work. He also had to keep a cool head in his dealings with the British. This was not a foregone conclusion either under the circumstances. Barnier came through both with flying colours but Stefaan gives us a wee peek below the sang froid.
"The repeated rejections by the UK to engage failed to test that flexibility [on a future deal] fully. It also led to a rare outburst of emotion on Barnier's side, who once raised his voice in the negotiations to announce that he was very calm. [p. 243]Stefaan's job was to interpret the British for Barnier and his team and, to his credit, he seems to have preserved his sanity in so doing.
He did a magnificent job and I hope many Brits read it and learn from it, and that they take this learning to heart and into their own political process before it is too late, if this point has not already been passed.
I propose to give you a flavour of the book by selecting quotes which particularly struck me and grouping them, not in chronological order but in some sort of thematic consistency. I may also add some comments of my own when I lose the run of myself.
Boris the Obstructionist
Just to be contrary, I'll start with something that is not in the book at all. I'm surprised that there is no reference to Johnson's attempt, in September 2019, to paralyse the EU by refusing to nominate a Commissioner in the context of a row over extensions. I'm not sure how this was resolved. I suspect some creative interpretation of the Treaty was discovered by the ever agile teams of Commission and Council lawyers.
On reflection, there is no reference either to Johnson's attempt to circumvent the Benn (Surrender) Act which effectively obliged him to seek a three month extension in 2019. He wrote the formal request as he was legally obliged to do but also wrote another letter saying he didn't want an extension. Tusk just ignored the second letter. It was during this mêlée that a Polish Conservative MP tried to persuade the Polish Prime Minister to refuse EU agreement to an extension.
I suppose Stefaan could reasonably argue that these attempted obstructions by Johnson were outside the actual negotiations process that the Commission was dealing with, but they do, nevertheless, give us further insight into the duplicitous nature of Johnson.
"The primary focus had to be to defend EU interests, not to accommodate the UK" [p. 85]Because the British did not understand that the EU single market was the jewel in the crown, as the CAP had been in the early days of the EEC, they did not understand why they were not allowed to shatter it, in passing, on their way out the door. They did not understand that they were now a third country pitted against a combined membership of 27.
"The unity and solidarity between EU leaders meant that individual countries, most notably Ireland, amplified their power vis-à-vis the UK. This meant the outcome on Brexit had to adjust to the Good Friday Agreement and its North-South cooperation, not the other way round." [p. 246/7]In fact, Stefaan actually mentions Daniel Ferrie, Commission Spokesperson on Brexit, and Declan Kelleher, Irish Permanent Representative to the EU, in a most favourable light. I am aware of Dan myself from his appearance at Commission press conferences during the negotiations and I have to say he was most impressive (in other words, he answered all the questions exactly as I expected him to !).
UK Civil War
Unlike the unity among the 27 which Barnier so assiduously cultivated, the opposite was the case in the UK parliament and Tory cabinet. The internecine squabbles within the Tory party had to be seen to be believed. I'm tempted to describe it as "cut throat ignorance". As I said above, when the Tories came to a final conclusion on the bloodstained battlefield, they felt the EU was honour bound to accept it. The level of ignorance, and indeed malice, was stunning.
Stefaan is fully aware of this and deals with it in some detail. It could be said to be one of the major themes of the book.
"Immediately after the speech [May's Mansion House Speech on 2/3/2020], Gavin Barwell, a former Tory MP and the PM's Chief of Staff, spoke to the 27 ambassadors and the European Commission representative in Europe House on Smith Square in Westminster. May was a "warm and human politician", Barwell stressed, who had managed to unite her cabinet and now the EU had to seize the moment she created." [p. 87]
[The Observer Sunday newspaper, took the view in May 2020 that] many in the UK 'did not need the Commission's gratuitous, self-defeating and deliberately punitive strictures to remind them of that chastening fact' that leaving the EU had a cost. It was time for the EU 'to get over itself' and accept that 'a democratic vote has torn up the rulebook'. National governments in the EU agreed however that a vote in one country did not tear up the rulebook for the other 27." [p. 202]As Stefaan remarks
"The UK government played a game of chicken by itself" [p. 247]"
"Barnier received letters from Tory and Labour MPs alike who wanted to come to discuss a way out as if he was a broker between warring British factions." [p. 151]The UK Press
"Commentators like Frazer Nelson writing in the Daily Telegraph depicted negotiations as a poker game and urged May to 'call out Barnier's bluff' at a time when all his cards were laid out on the table." [p. 7]
"[Barnier's] regular press conferences and debates at the European Parliament gave him frequent venues to advance his points, and yet reporters working in London did not always pick them up. In my own work, I was often surprised to see that what I said in public debates in London made considerable waves in British media, even when my points were merely things Barnier had already repeatedly said in Brussels for reporters there, ad nauseam. [p. 97/8]Northern Ireland
"The EU compromised more on Northern Ireland than on any other withdrawal issue" [p. 185]
"Henry Newman, the Director of the think tank Open Europe, ... wrote that the four freedoms were indivisible only 'when it suited the EU' as it had already made an exception for Northern Ireland. so why reject an exception for the whole of the UK? The EU reasoning used the opposite logic. Barnier warned member states that the UK was trying to use the EU's concession on alignment by Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip to force the EU into abandoning its principles and compromosing on the indivisibility of the four freedoms for the whole of the UK. That concession was something the EU was willing to give for the sake of upholding the Good Friday Agreement and protecting Ireland's interests, but not for the EU-UK relationship as a whole because of the risks for the single market." [p. 95]I know the above quote is a long one but I include it because I only recently understood the extent and motivation for that concession and am glad that Stefaan has set it out so clearly.
"This being said, was the principle that these four freedoms are inseparable a legal inevitability or a political choice by the EU? Ultimately it was a political construct." [p. 22]The original arrangement for Northern Ireland was the Backstop which subsequently became the Northern Ireland Protocol as subsequently expanded by the Windsor Framework. The Backstop effectively meant the UK as a whole staying in the Single Market for goods and as the four freedoms were indivisable at the scale of the UK, the remaining freedoms would have to be respected. As this arrangement would be permanent in the absence of being made obsolete by a better deal, it did raise some questions over why the UK was leaving the EU in the first place. Anyway Theresa May didn't get that through parliament when her solicitor general revealed that it was likely to be permanent.
"Davis contested May's new backstop proposal of a 'temporary customs arrangement' with the EU for the whole of the UK, not just Northern Ireland. It deprived the UK of its autonomous trade policy and Davis only agreed to that after obtaining a cut-off date. Barnier told him a cut-off date plunged Northern Ireland back into uncertainty." [p. 95]In some sense a lot of this appears academic, as if GB wishes to export to NI and there is any risk of goods entering the Single Market they will have to conform to EU standards. The same effectively goes for GB exports to the continental EU even if UK is not in the Single Market as such. Hopefully the "Brussels Effect" will make much of this less of a problem as GB producers opt for EU standards anyway.
"Barnier worried that May wanted to keep Northern Ireland in reserve as a bartaining chip to opt for regulatory divergence and an independent UK trade policy, creating inevitable trade friction in the eyes of the EU, and at the same time for seamless trade with the EU, by generalising a template for the border on the island of Ireland. The UK wanted to have its cake and eat it, or 'dance at two different weddings at the same time', as Barnier said later in a translation of a similar German expression." [p. 131]I remember Barnier's own phrase in his book, "le beurre et le prix du beurre".
Article 50 Notification
" ... a few days after May had pulled the first vote in December 2018, the EU Court of Justice issued its Wightman ruling that the UK could unilaterally revoke its intention to withdraw, against the views of the Commission and Council lawyers. Article 50 of the EU Treaty was silent on this question of revocability. EU judges resorted therefore to international law to fill a hole and affirmed the UK's sovereignty to change its mind." [p. 155]I must say that from the beginning I assumed that the UK could withdraw its notification as long as it remained a member and I was counting the days left for it to do so. In retrospect I can now see that was a false hope. Nevertheless, it is amusing from this perspective to see the ECJ asserting the UK's sovereignty.
"[Johnson's remarks were] more appropriate for a salesperson from a foodstore than for a political leader focused on global trade being a force for public goods" [p. 196]
"Another deadline came and went. The EU refused to buy a pig in a poke, to paraphrase a tweet by Charles Michel. Johnson's focus seemed to be more on process and announcing artificial deadlines to look tough in domestic media, less on building trust and a longer-term relationship." [p. 229]This remark well captures the shallowness of Johnson.
"[On the Political Declaration] A sword of Damocles loomed over this. Off the record, sources in London told Barnier's team about a prevailing school of thought in Downing Street that these talks were not for real but simply aimed at getting Brexit over the line. The government was not genuinely commited to the words it put on paper, even though 27 national governments endorsed that paper. Cummings revelations on Twitter later in October 2021 confirmed that theses sources had conveyed an accurate reading of the situation in 2019. He acknowledged it was all window dressing to 'get Brexit done'." [p. 214]It should be remembered that the first thing Frost did when it came to the TCA negotiations was to take issue with the Political Declaration.
UK Civil Servants
"... the political uncertainty put the UK civil service in an impossible position, forcing it to come to Brussels and keep the process going while tensions in the government were at boiling point. In such situations, the best a civil service can do is to keep as many options open until the government is ready to decide, which is what the professionals of the UK civil service did." [p. 92]
"Preparatory work by a civil service cannot make up for political indecisiveness." [p.40]Stefaan makes quite clear he viewed the UK civil service as very competent and knowledgeable about the EU but that the problem lay with their political masters bickering among themselves, most of them being completely ignorant about what they were at.
"Dominic Raab, as Brexit Secretary, decided to try out whether the EU was ready to accept a model of 'no controls' in the negotiation round of 20 August 2018, contradicting the line of Downing Street. ... In case of no deal, the UK did not plan to impose controls, he told Barnier. Nor did the irish government want controls, he added, so only the EU was causing this 'artificial' problem." [p. 146]I remember reading in Barnier's book that Theresa May threatened to remove all UK controls as a solution to the NI problem. How pig ignorant can these people get. Neither Raab nor May seem to have any understanding of where the EU was coming from in this matter. And wasn't it Raab who, just some weeks earlier, had belatedly discovered the importance of the Dover-Calais route in UK-EU trade. God help us.
But the supreme example of pig ignorance and arrogance combined has to be:
" It became more surreal on the phone afterwards when he [Frost] implied Barnier should make sure someone high up overruled the European Council conclusions" [p. 233]I hope that this post and the above quotes have given you a thirst for Stefaan's book. Whether you are an EUphile or a UKphile, I suggest you make sure to have taken your blood pressure tablets before each reading. If you descend into total incomprehension, this is not necessarily a stroke, it may well be that you have suddently found yourself inexplicably treading water in the English channel, which sadly now separates Dover from Calais.
By the way, Chris Grey has done a very good review of the book with which I agree. My one comment would be that I found both Stefaan de Rynck's book and Michel Barnier's books equally riveting.