Richard North, 06/05/2021  

Virtually all the legacy newspapers have carried the publication of Michel Barnier's book on the Brexit negotiations, covering the period between the 2016 referendum and the end of January this year. It is out today in French and available in English in October.

Entitled La Grande Illusion (Journal secret du Brexit), it gets different treatment according to which paper is reviewing it. But, for those inclined, there is a 57-page extract on the publisher's website in the original French.

As to the papers, we start with The Times, which headlines, "Boris Johnson didn't know his own Brexit policy, claims Michel Barnier", adding the subtitle: "A new book by the EU negotiator reflects on the PM's 'baroque personality' and trouble with details".

The diaries, we are told, focus on how Conservative infighting shaped Brexit, especially with the emergence of Johnson as party leader and prime minister. As charmed as he is repulsed by Johnson's "baroque personality", Barnier does not hide his astonishment and, sometimes, anger at British negotiating tactics, particularly after Theresa May left No 10.

Thus, The Times's report leapfrogs almost to the end of the negotiations, focusing on the Brussels dinner on 9 December last year, as talks hung in the balance. Johnson is said to have stunned Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen, by appearing not to know his own negotiating position.

Amid deep disagreements on fishing and EU demands for a "level playing field" in regulation, the prime minister allegedly suggested a minimal deal on areas of existing agreement combined with a new pact on defence and security to take the sting out of a no-deal Brexit.

"We could even, in the event of disagreement, show a willingness to co-operate with a treaty on foreign policy and defence", he told the Brussels pair, to "general astonishment on our side", writes Barnier, because he had "brutally" rejected such a deal in the past.

Barnier said that he replied: "But Boris, it was you who refused to open a chapter on defence, co-operation and foreign policy in the negotiations". Johnson had replied: "What do you mean, me? Who gave this instruction?", while looking at his officials.

The Telegraph, predictably, takes a different slant, bringing in more players in its headline, which reads: "'Bulldozer' Boris and 'messianic' Raab: Michel Barnier's withering verdict on Britain’s Brexit team". The sub-head tells of Barnier hitting out at "childish" UK ploys.

That is expanded upon in the text, where Johnson's negotiators are "blasted" as "childish" and "not up to the task", with Barnier regarding his European team the only "adults in the room". He paints a picture of petulant British negotiators under Johnson, who he said had not fully grasped the implications of Brexit and was full of bluster and bluff.

At one point in the talks, when he says the British had wrongly claimed that the EU had ruled out a Canada-style trade relationship, Barnier writes: "We looked at each other with incredulity. It was almost childish".

This paper also has Barnier voicing disdain for his British opposite numbers, dismissing Dominic Raab as a man with a "Messianic light in his eye" who "lacks nuance". David Davis kept a low profile and "avoided blows".

Jacob Rees-Mogg is described as "one of the most ideological Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and decidedly the most opportunistic, who cultivates a style that is more 19th century than close to the people". Olly Robbins, on the other hand, wins plaudits as "taking the measure better than others of the consequences of Brexit and seeking to limit the damage".

Jeremy Corbyn gets short shrift as an "old school Leftist" who failed to grasp the technicalities of the negotiations and bore a "heavy responsibility" for sitting on fence. But Mr Corbyn's successor, Sir Keir Starmer, receives the Barnier stamp of approval "as I get the feeling I am dealing with a future prime minister of the UK".

As for Johnson, Mr Barnier lets rip as he writes about his resignation as Foreign Secretary. "In truth, Boris Johnson committed so many errors and verbal 'outbursts' that his nomination as head of the Foreign Office seemed incongruous in numerous capitals. And I can imagine that this was also the sentiment of many British diplomats".

The Independent, in one of the longer pieces, has as its headline, "Barnier hits back at ‘childish’ and ‘pathetic’ Brexit strategies of Boris Johnson", with the sub-head: "Memoirs of negotiation show how Brussels lost trust in Downing Street team".

Again we get the jibe of the EU negotiators having to act as the "adults in the room", the context being "repeated provocations" from Johnson which at times became "pathetic" and "almost childish". Barnier then accuses Johnson and his inner circle of "political piracy" and states baldly as negotiations reach their endgame: "I simply no longer trust them".

At one point, after Mr Johnson threatened to tear up the laboriously negotiated agreement on the Irish border, Mr Barnier wrote that it appeared the UK was pursuing the “madman strategy” of pretending to be ready for a no-deal Brexit in order to force Brussels into concessions. The Downing Street team were "not up to the challenge of Brexit", and Johnson himself appeared badly briefed in talks with European Commission presidents.

Right up to the last minute, a day before signing the TCA on Christmas Eve, the Johnson team were seeking advantage, presenting the EU with a legal text which was "peppered with traps, false compromises and backwards steps".

The Independent also picks up Barnier's reference to May's Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, from which Barnier expressed himself "stupefied" as she ruled out most forms of future cooperation with the remaining 27-nation bloc.

In the Guardian, this is given more thorough treatment, where Barnier "marvels at, "The number of doors she shut, one after the other", recording that he was "astonished at the way she has revealed her cards … before we have even started negotiating".

He pondered whether the consequences of the decisions had been "thought through, measured or discussed. "Does she realise this rules out almost all forms of cooperation we have with our partners?", he asked.

Furthermore, May's proposed timetable – undoing a 44-year partnership via article 50 and agreeing a future relationship, all within two years – also seemed "ambitious to say the least, when it took seven years of intense work to negotiate a simple FTA with Canada".

The Guardian headline tells us: "Tory quarrels determined UK’s post-Brexit future, says Barnier", with the text emphasising that Britain's post-Brexit future was determined by "the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs".

The UK's early problem, Barnier is cited as writing, was that they began by "talking to themselves. And they underestimate the legal complexity of this divorce, and many of its consequences".

As to Johnson. Barnier writes that, "Although his posturing and banter leave him open to it", it would be dangerous to underestimate him. In the talks, he was "advancing like a bulldozer, manifestly trying to muscle his way forwards,, although seemingly hobbled by the same fundamental British Brexit problem.

When one of Barnier's 60-member team explained to Johnson the need for customs and quality checks on the Irish border, Barnier writes, it was "my impression that he became aware, in that discussion, of a series of technical and legal issues that had not been so clearly explained to him by his own team".

As late as May 2020, Barnier records his surprise at the UK's continued demands for "a simple Canada-type trade deal" while still retaining single market advantages "in innumerable sectors". There remains "real incomprehension, in Britain, of the objective, sometimes mechanical consequences of its choices", he writes.

The Financial Times then follows up with a headline declaring "Boris Johnson's 'madman' strategy dumbfounded Brussels' Brexit chief", as the sub-head has Barnier describing "how EU lost trust in UK's unpredictable and unprepared prime minister".

There is, of course, much more – even in these reviews – which I've read with some trepidation, with my own (very much shorter) rendition on the negotiations already type-set in the revised copy of The Great Deception.

To my relief, I don't seem to have left anything out of significance, but I will have to wait until October to be sure. But I am heartened by Barnier coming up with a similar view on May's Lancaster House speech and much more.

I'm also amused by Barnier's views of Brexiters in general and of Nigel Farage and his Ukip followers in particular. He writes that they had simply behaved "irresponsibly, with regard to the national interests of their own country". How else, Barnier asks, "could they call on people to make such a serious choice without explaining or detailing to them its consequences?"

Of the arch-Brexiters, Digby Jones, John Mills and John Longworth, he writes: "Their discourse is, quite simply, morally scandalous".

We are fortunate to get Barnier's views on these negotiations and, even if they don't add greatly to the sum of our knowledge, the at least confirm what we knew (or suspected) anyway. Even then, the shades of ignorance displayed by our politicians and our negotiators is an indictment of the way the Brexit process was handled.

When the final accounts are in, I would be fairly confident that history won't be kind to the British effort.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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