EU Brexit negotiators had to act as the “adults in the room” in the face of repeated provocations from Boris Johnson which at times became “pathetic” and “almost childish”, Michel Barnier has said.
In his 500-page account of four and a half years of talks, the EU’s chief negotiator accuses Mr 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 Mr Johnson himself appeared badly briefed in talks with European Commission presidents, said the Brussels negotiator.
After Mr Johnson took office at No 10 in 2019, Mr Barnier recorded that his team were repeatedly “incredulous” and “stupefied” as the UK sought to go back on agreements it had signed up to, created artificial deadlines and threatened to walk away from talks.
Right up to the last minute, a day before signing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement 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”, he said.
But his diary of the protracted negotiations records how Brussels had to provide Mr Johnson with a “ladder to climb down” to provide a smokescreen for him to re-enter talks after threatening to walk away.
Mr Barnier said that from the start he felt that the UK’s Brexiters did not understand the consequences of EU withdrawal and recorded he was “stupefied” by Theresa May’s 2017 speech in which she ruled out most forms of future cooperation with the remaining 27-nation bloc.
But he said he was in no doubt that when Mr Johnson succeeded her in July 2019, the new prime minister would be “pragmatic” about reaching a swift deal to neutralise the political threat of the Brexit Party and allow him to win an early election.
He described Mr Johnson as “like a bulldozer” during talks in September 2019, but with “something genuine and mischievous in his expression… a rather nice person”. Despite his jokes, it was important not to underestimate the new prime minister, he noted.
However, despite Mr Johnson’s bullish determination to get rid of the Northern Irish “backstop” negotiated by Ms May, Mr Barnier said the PM appeared during discussions on the issue “to be taking on board a series of practical and legal problems which had not been explained clearly enough to him by his team”.
After reaching a deal which got rid of the backstop by creating a customs border in the Irish Sea, Mr Barnier recorded his surprise to find Mr Johnson fighting that year’s election on the basis that there would be no controls on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, something which he said “does not correspond with the contents of the withdrawal agreement”.
And when close Mr Johnson ally David Frost took over negotiation of the subsequent trade deal, Mr Barnier said it came as “a thunderbolt” to hear him say that the UK did not regard itself as bound by the deal agreed just months earlier.
But it was Mr Johnson’s threat to tear up arrangements for the Irish border with the Internal Market Bill last September that prompted Mr Barnier to say he had lost trust in the PM.
“By acting in this way, the British government is engaging in no more or less than political piracy,” he wrote. “At that moment, I felt this threat like a betrayal of their word. Clearly, they are ready for anything.
“I find that the current team in 10 Downing St is not up to the challenges of Brexit nor to the responsibility that is theirs for having wanted Brexit. I simply no longer trust them.”
After a “glacial” dinner with Mr Frost in London, Mr Barnier wrote: “We could have suspended negotiations immediately, on the grounds that one does not negotiate under duress.
“But suspension of the negotiations for this grave reason - which was probably what the British were hoping for - would have put the blame for failure on us. We do not want to succumb to this provocation… We will make the British government face its responsibilities.”
The following month Mr Johnson dramatically announced that he was preparing for no deal, accusing the EU of failing to make concessions by a deadline which the PM had unilaterally set.
Accused by Mr Frost in a video call of failing to meet the UK’s efforts to find a deal, Mr Barnier recorded that he and his team “looked at one another with incredulity. It was almost childish”.
And he added: “This episode seemed to me to be quite pathetic. We have had many reasons over the course of the past weeks and months, in reaction to one British declaration or posture or the other, to lose our patience and dramatise the talks. But once again we mastered our nerves.”
Discussing the incident, he recorded an aide saying: “We always knew we would reach a crisis. Now we are here, we must do what we always said we would do and be the ‘adults in the room’.”
The “psychodrama orchestrated by London” resolved itself within days after Mr Barnier repeated in a speech a form of words about sovereignty which would allow Mr Johnson to back away from his threat.
But he said that Mr Johnson continued to threaten no deal if Brussels would not make concessions, as if out of “wishful thinking” that “everything would go well, or not too badly”, when in fact it would have very serious consequences for both the EU and UK.
At one point he told Mr Frost directly: “Your negotiating tactics are a masquerade. You are trying to play with us. I won’t put up with it for long. If you want a deal, you will have to move.”
By early December last year, while Mr Johnson was trumpeting the merits of an “Australian-style” no-deal Brexit, Mr Barnier said he believed the PM had in fact begun to take on board the consequences of a crash-out, adding: “I’m sure he wants to avoid it.”
In a crunch meeting with Ursula von der Leyen to seek a final breakthrough, Mr Johnson appeared “not to have taken the time to go through the detail himself with his team in advance”, telling the Commission president that he was ready to be flexible over fishing rights but needed to be able to show that the UK had won back its sovereignty in time for the next general election in three years.
Right up until the sealing of the trade deal on Christmas Eve, Mr Barnier said Mr Johnson and Mr Frost tried to strike side deals and go over his head with appeals to national leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
But after the trade deal was signed on a “day of relief, tinged with sadness”, Mr Barnier recorded that he had achieved the EU’s negotiating goals thanks to the “unity and solidarity” of the 27 member states.
Even after the TCA was agreed, he said that “British provocations” continued, with threats to breach the deal over the Northern Ireland border and UK government ministers opening talking about using “social, economic and fiscal dumping” to gain a competitive edge over Europe.
But in a warning to London, he wrote: “We must remain alert against all new kinds of cherry-picking… We have put into the Trade and Cooperation Agreement the tools we need to respond.”
Mr Barnier said that the 2016 Leave campaign was “fuelled by caricatures and untruths” including Mr Johnson’s promise, on the side of his bus, of £350m a week for the NHS. And he said that Nigel Farage’s refugee posters “recalled the excesses of propaganda from another age”.
But he said that the message of Brexit for the EU was the need to “listen to expressions of popular sentiment … and respond to them [with] respect and political courage”.
Explaining the choice of title for his book, La Grande Illusion, Mr Barnier wrote: “The great illusion is to think that you can face the world and its often brutal transformations alone… and to believe in the promise of an identity and a sovereignty based on solitude rather than solidarity.”
- La Grande Illusion (Journal secret du Brexit) is published in French by Gallimard on 6 May and in English in October.