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M. Barnier’s little helpers

Michel Barnier
Written by Robert Tombs

During the tortuous negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union (represented throughout by the veteran French politician Michel Barnier) it was widely known that alongside the official negotiations, many British politicians were having private meetings with Barnier, many of them more than once. What were they saying, and why?

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Apart from Monsieur Barnier’s supposedly secret and diplomatically discreet published diary (reviewed on this site), a recent book sheds some surprising, and perhaps even shocking, light on some of these conversations.  This is Inside the Deal: How the EU got Brexit done (Agenda Publishing, 2023), by Stefaan de Rynck.  He was one of Barnier’s close aides, and he had a ‘ringside seat to all crucial talks’ (De Rynck p vii).  Barnier praised his ‘wise and subtle analyses’, and his knowledge of British politics (Barnier p 31), which Barnier and his team naturally kept a careful eye on.  Readers should check Lord Frost’s review of the book, which he describes as worthy and valuable, if a little dull.

I wish to concentrate on only one aspect: British politicians who came to meet Barnier.  These meetings were widely reported by both the pro- and anti-Brexit press.  They were controversial at the time.  I am reminded of Wordsworth’s lines on visitors to Napoleon:

Lords, lawyers, statesmen, squires of low degree

Men known, and men unknown, sick, lame and blind,

Post forward all, like creatures of one kind,

With first-fruit offerings crowd to bend the knee

Nicola Sturgeon insisted on being first in the queue in July 2017.  Tony Blair was also an assiduous visitor, in Brussels and elsewhere.  Jeremy Corbyn came too, and presented Barnier with his first-fruit offering, an Arsenal shirt.  The Welsh first minister came with a bottle of Welsh whisky, bought (says De Rynck disdainfully) at the duty-free shop at Cardiff airport.  Corbyn’s less-than-enthusiastic attitude to the EU disappointed Barnier, who much preferred Keir Starmer whom he tipped as a future Prime Minister, and thought that Labour might then lead the UK back to a Norway style dependency—”if it’s not already too late” (Barnier p 113).

Remainer MPs of all parties found their way to Barnier’s door, often repeatedly, including Nick Clegg (Lib Dem), Chukka Umunna (Labour), Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve (Conservative).  Barnier also met Tory Brexiteers, who tried in vain to persuade him to consider solutions to the Irish border issue.

It was undoubtedly a delicate matter—to put it mildly—for British politicians, some senior and all active in the debate, to hold conversations with the man who was the negotiating opponent of their own government, even if they were in opposition to that government or disagreed with its policy.  The justification given at the time was that this was simply a way of keeping informed, and ensuring that the other side was also fully informed.  The Guardian (14 Sept 2018) reported a Remainer source saying “We are not trying to subvert the government negotiations but we are trying to make sure European leaders are plugged into British politics”.  Barnier says that he always told his interlocutors that he was negotiating only with the British government, and not carrying our parallel negotiations with them.

Yet it must remain a question whether the EU’s negotiating position was enhanced by what Barnier was told by visiting politicians.  Was there substance in accusations made at the time that they were damaging the British government’s negotiating position?  Admittedly, the British government under Theresa May was such a weak negotiator that the outcome might have been little different anyway.  Yet De Rynck’s revelations might also cause readers to reflect on where the loyalties of some Remainers really lay, and the extent to which their anti-Brexit fervour caused them to go beyond what was acceptable in a Member of Parliament or a former Minister—or in Blair’s case, former Prime Minister.

First, concerning Blair’s advice to Barnier, given on 18 July 2018, soon after the notorious Chequers meeting when Theresa May tried to spring a draft withdrawal agreement on her government, leading to resignations and a period of high tension.  Barnier says rather blandly (p 164) that Blair thought that “the tide is turning, and a second consultation of the British people is no longer impossible.”  Even this opinion might have encouraged Barnier and other EU leaders to take a tougher stance—if encouragement they needed—as it opened the prospect of delaying a settlement and reversing Brexit in a second referendum.  It was surely a statement that paid little heed to the deep political damage that might be done to British politics and British society.

But De Rynck goes significantly further:

“Tony Blair visited Barnier and urged him to push more quickly on clarity for the future relationship. Such clarity will be a wakeup call, Blair asserted, as the British people will not want to be half out [of the EU] without a say over EU rules. A second referendum is then probable, Blair said.” (p 104)

So Blair was not merely informing Barnier about what he considered the state of opinion in Britain, he was urging him to adopt a strategy to defeat the British government and risk a political crisis. Blair’s hope, reports De Rynck, was to prevent the British government from signing a relatively flexible compromise agreement with the EU, which Blair spun as “clarifying” the future UK-EU relationship.  But as the Daily Telegraph reported (29 Sept. 2019) Blair was aiming at extending the negotiation period—the standard Remainer tactic for preparing the ground for a second referendum.

Some readers might think I am going too far in referring to a political crisis.  However, “crisis” is a word used by De Rynck, and indeed by Barnier, when reporting on meetings with other British politicians.  In January 2018, Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna and Labour MPs Chris Leslie and Stephen Doughty came to see him. Barnier thought them “courageous” for disobeying their respective party leaders.  But he merely writes in his diary (15 January 2018) that “their belief is that there may well be a political crisis that will change the game, either next April or, more likely, in October, at the end of the Article 50 negotiations” (p. 106).  But again De Rynck goes significantly further: he states that the MPs told Barnier that “a crisis moment in British politics would work in their favour” (p. 96).  Does this sound as if they were urging Barnier to precipitate a crisis?  With Nicola Sturgeon there was no ambiguity: she advised Barnier in May 2018 “to use his powers to cause a crisis moment in British politics in June via the European Council”, believing that “such a crisis would lead to a softer Brexit”.

In short, in De Rynck’s account British politicians repeatedly advise Barnier on tactics to be used against the British government, and encourage him to look forward to, or even create, a crisis in our domestic politics.

Barnier did not take this advice.  He did not need to.  Remainer MPs of all parties were able to cause a crisis unaided in 2019 by overriding the rules governing parliamentary business and trying to take over the direction of government policy.  It was only the European Parliamentary Elections in May 2019 and then the General Election in December that settled the question, and ended the political careers of many of the MPs whose anti-Brexit activities Barnier so admired.

There is a sting in the tail of De Rynck’s account.  The Remainers who were giving advice to Barnier were hoping to reverse Brexit by a second referendum or at least make it as “soft” as possible.  But Barnier and his team were doubtful: they thought that a soft Brexit, making Britain a “rule taker” of the EU, would store up trouble for the future.  Ironically, says De Rynck, Barnier “shared the same ground as hard Brexiteers in substantive terms” (p 146).


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About the author

Robert Tombs