The secret diary of Brexit

“La grande illusion est […] de croire à la promesse d’une identité et d’une souveraineté solitaires plutôt que solidaires.” (Michel Barnier)

Michel Barnier, La grande illusion: Journal secret du Brexit (2016-2020) (Paris: Gallimard, 2021).

Reading Michel Barnier’s book (541 pages) is like having a trip back to the future. The author accompanies the reader through those fifty months of tough negotiations with the United Kingdom to settle the Brexit divorce and to define the future relationship between Brussels and London. (Almost) nothing is missing: from the ‘rude awakening’ in the aftermath of the British referendum to the countless meetings and trips that followed. From the twists and turns caused by Covid-19 to British attempts to open alternative channels of negotiation to circumvent the mandate entrusted to the French. Barnier punctuates this journey with comments about the various European leaders’ outlook on Brexit – from Emmanuel Macron to Angela Merkel – humanising them. Moreover, the book is also teeming with anecdotes. For example, it tells the story of the language lesson given to the author by the Queen Elizabeth II in person; or it reports the announcement of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle, which usefully relegated the very delicate question of Brexit from the front page. No better words can therefore define this book than the ones that the author himself uses to describe those four-and-a-half years: it is ‘une aventure humaine’ – ‘a human adventure’ (my translations throughout).

The pages of the book also offer a window onto the nature of the negotiator; images and press cartoons accompany the narrative and confirm Barnier’s concern for pedagogy. Indeed, the book begins with a presentation of the main characters and ends with a glossary to explain the technical language and the anglicisms of the negotiations for the benefit of his French-language readers, whether it is the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ or the economic ‘level playing field’. This is, in essence, a ‘Brexit lesson’ that the negotiator wants to deliver for Europe and for France, as he wishes to participate in the French presidential campaign of 2022.

This Brexit module has three fundamental learning outcomes, which were always central to the discussions and debates (for over 1,600 days): to protect the Northern Ireland peace process; to preserve the interests of the European Union, of companies, of fishermen, of farmers, and of citizens; and, finally, to maintain a level of cooperation with the UK, which is ‘a great country, ally, friend and partner’. The strategy employed to achieve this was an enduring commitment to unanimity respecting the Treaties, the peoples of the Union, and never confusing popular sentiments with populism. Barnier and his team managed to constantly unite all the member states (which was often a challenge in itself) to counter the demands and the tactics of ‘nos amis britanniques’ – our British friends. Regarding Boris Johnson, the Frenchman calls him ‘un homme de gouvernement. Il a clairement de l’intelligence, est cordial, chaleureux et très pragmatique. Même si j’ai trouvé curieux un certain nombre de ses déclarations dans le passé […]. Je crois qu’il lui faut encore un peu plus de temps pour démontrer des qualités d’homme d’Etat’ – ‘a man of government. He is clearly smart, cordial, warm and very practical. Although I have found a number of his statements curious in the past […]. I think he still needs a little more time to demonstrate his qualities as a statesman.’

A single positive aspect of Brexit is expressed in the book. Barnier considers the Brexit process as a ‘warning signal’, a ‘wake-up’ moment for Europe. Brexit enflamed the power and courage of the European people committed to the EU. They are, Barnier believes, capable of reinventing themselves when ‘it is very late. But it is not too late’.

Barnier ends with a triple warning. First – and maybe most importantly – he asserts that maintaining peace on the island of Ireland, thus protecting the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, needs to be a priority. Second, he warns the EU against the manoeuvres of London: ‘le gouvernement britannique cherchera à rentrer par les fenêtres dans le marché unique’ – ‘the British government will seek to re-enter through the back door into the Single Market’. Finally, Barnier warns the people of Europe against themselves. These should prevent ‘le retour à Bruxelles des habitudes, des certitudes et des arrogances’ – ‘the return of habits, certainties and arrogances to Brussels’.

Hence, the conclusion brings us back to reality: with the UK out of the way, the EU27 should now get on with their integration project. The idea that they would keep a ‘light on’ for their past colleagues seems hopelessly romantic. The EU of 2040 will be an even less enticing prospect to federalism-sceptic British citizens. Moreover, any possible UK attempt to re-join the club would not be on the same terms. Coming back would be doing so without the once-cherished Thatcher-negotiated cash rebate. As for the generations that would have voted to stay in 2016 but never got the chance, they’ll soon move on: other issues will assume greater priority. Nonetheless, we have all learnt something from the Brexit experience: if the assumption is that this question has been settled now for a generation or more, Brexit has taught us that politics moves fast. What looked impossible in 2016 is now a reality.

Giada Lagana

Dr Giada is a Research Assistant at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD), School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. She was also recently awarded a Simone Veil Fellowship at LMU-Munich for her research on EU peace-building. She has previously worked at the Wales Governance Centre on the ESRC ‘Between Two Unions’ project with Professor Daniel Wincott, examining the impact of the United Kingdom’s (UK) withdrawal from the European Union (EU) on the UK’s internal constitutional and intergovernmental arrangements. She has published the book The European Union and the Northern Ireland Peace Process (Palgrave McMillan). Giada started out as an historian, completing her undergraduate studies in modern and contemporary history at the University of Pavia (Italy). She then obtained an MA in international relations and history, under the joint supervision of Didier Poton (Université de La Rochelle) and Michel Catala (Université de Nantes).