I was delighted to meet Michel Barnier recently. Here are my takeaways from the event.
Leadership and complexity
Michel Barnier is a dignified, humanistic leader who maintained a moral position on the Brexit negotiations, refusing to comment on the state of UK politics and UK politicians. He did praise Theresa May for trying her hardest to deal with the warring factions within her own party. Our own inner uncivil war in Westminster ultimately led to a Brexit, which satisfies none of the Conservative party, and which frightens the Labour party. Only a few politicians are unafraid to name the elephant in the room. Brexit has acted to reduce our resilience to external shocks, such as the war in Ukraine and Covid, with more to come in the coming years.
One of the miracles of Barnier’s collaborative leadership was his ability to hold 27 nations in unity over an extended period. He describes this in great deal in his book My Secret Brexit Diary – A Glorious Illusion. He toured the 27 states and made a commitment to release all details of negotiations to all, immediately at every stage of the process. This transparency and continuous engagement was in stark contrast to the Westminster Government’s approach:
- A secretive approach both with the public and within negotiations.
- General tabloid mischief and distraction – for example, suggesting that Michel Barnier gave Boris Johnson Covid.
- Attempts to break the unity of the EU27 e.g. David Davis’ and David Frost’s attempts to negotiate directly with individual countries to bypass the EU negotiators.
Barnier maintained three overarching principles throughout. These enabled him to have consistency of purpose and maintain high levels of trust amongst multiple stakeholders.
- To protect the EU Single Market.
- To protect The Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland.
- To protect the UK / EU relationship.
The Westminster Government placed greater emphasis on transactional items (the task) rather than the relationship. In an ongoing situation of trade and co-operation, both the task and the relationship matter. This has enormous implications into the future for any attempts to develop closer relations with our largest trading partner.
Our decision to change negotiators frequently did not help. With four negotiators in four years, this only served to confound progress. The high-water mark of the Brexit proposals was Theresa May’s deal, which attempted to address the sensitive issue of Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson diluted Theresa’s deal to “get Brexit done”. Nearly four years later Brexit is “coming undone”. In recent polls, nearly 2/3 of people in Britain now report that Brexit is not working.
Michel dispelled the myth that a soft Brexit existed in a brief aside, when he chuckled about the idea. We are sleepwalking towards a hard Brexit. To quote Bachman Turner Overdrive “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”:
- In 2024, car manufacturers will face significant difficulties in demonstrating that their cars are substantially built from British components. Their choice will be either to face tariffs or move to Europe. Many may choose to do the latter.
- Smaller manufacturers will have to decide whether they will serve a domestic market, Europe or both, once we introduce our UKCA mark instead of the internationally recognised CE mark. This will probably result in further business closures or relocations as costs of production rise.
- It’s not just trade in physical goods and products that will be affected. Data services and financial passporting will all be affected in the coming years, as our “boiled frog” Brexit reaches boiling point and the frog (Britain) dies, unaware of its surroundings.
When asked if the EU benefited at all from Brexit, Barnier was quick to answer NO, emphatically. He pointed out that Brexit had been a lose-lose outcome for all parties. When pressed on the idea that Brexit may have balkanised the EU 27, Barnier said not. He remains saddened at the results of years and years of negotiations for which all parties will pay economically, socially, politically, environmentally, technologically and legally. Check out our first film on the economics of Brexit so far in this EU TUBE link.
Humble pie v cherry picking
Regarding the opportunity to rejoin, Barnier said that the door is open for dialogue and that there was much that we need to do that we cannot do in isolation, such as the need to face climate change, Russia, terrorism and so on. That said, this should not be taken as an opportunity for more “cherry picking” and “cake and eat it too” approaches by Westminster politicians. Until our Government has learned to overcome the exceptionalism and hubris that fuelled Brexit, it is unlikely that any approaches would be taken seriously. In any case, although Brexit remains high on the UK press agenda, Barnier observed that it is hardly discussed in Europe, who have moved on and learned from six years of Brexit self-harm.
Michel made special mention of the care he took with Northern Ireland to preserve the peace and find ways through the mess created by the DUP and The Conservative Party. When challenged as to whether the protocol broke the four freedoms, he returned to the fundamental issue of preserving the Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland. No special provisions had been made but the maintenance of peace was the prime goal and remains so. There was a deliberate intent NOT to play hardball on Northern Ireland.
In 2019, a You Gov survey of Conservative voters showed that they thought Brexit would be worth it, even if Scotland and Northern Ireland were “collateral damage” of the process. It rather seems that this has turned out to be the case and we’ll see what the administrations make of this in the coming months and years.
EU gotta have faith
When asked if he lost faith at any time during the negotiations, Michel did say that when Boris Johnson introduced The Internal Markets Bill, he wondered, not least because this put Britain at odds with international law, a huge step down for a nation that was regarded as a leader in setting standards and leading the way in law and order. The catchphrase “Taking Back Control” (TBC) starts to reveal itself more clearly.Whilst leave voters probably thought that they were the beneficiaries of TBC, it rather looks like the main beneficiary of TBC was the Cabinet. Parliament signed away huge amounts of their own power to the executive in the last few years. There is more to come, once Jacob Rees-Mogg has his bonfire of EU standards which were developed by our politicians. One may be tempted to ask, what is the point of being an MP?
Asked if he had any regrets, Barnier did want us to have more time to consider the issues and find ways through the problems. In the event, Boris Johnson was so keen to deliver Brexit before people could work out what they had signed up for that this led to the speed of final negotiations.
Michel, Merci beaucoup pour tout ce que vous avez fait pour essayer de sauver notre pays de lui-même. Le Brexit est perdant. Nous allons nous réveiller doucement.