During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, one of my more bizarre recollections is watching from the window of my office at the European Union’s (EU) London headquarters in a quiet Westminster square as Brexiteer Nigel Farage waved to me from the open-top deck of a double-decker bus with Elmer Bernstein’s title tune from ‘The Great Escape’ blasting out.
Round and round the square went the bus, until the driver decided everyone had heard enough of the commotion and it headed off to Parliament Square for a day of public nuisance. At the time, there were ‘tut-tuts’ and ‘well-I-nevers’ from those who thought the issue of Britain’s exit from the EU was too delicate a matter to be framed in terms of the mass escape of Allied prisoners of war from a Nazi prison.
The family of the tune’s composer – one of the most tenacious of earworms – even condemned Farage for co-opting their father’s work for use in rousing the Leave campaigners. Many people were uncomfortable with the militaristic overtones in the battle for Brexit. Not so, it seems, the EU’s very own chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has just released his ‘Secret Brexit Journal’ titled ‘La Grande Illusion’ (The Great Illusion) in a nod to Jean Renoir’s 1937 movie of the same name about a group of French prisoners of war continually plotting to torment and ultimately escape their German captors.
The puzzle here is who Barnier might imagine fits the cast in relation to Brexit. Does he imagine himself as Captain de Boeldieu, the aristocratic and aloof French officer who insists on formal uniform, monocle and white gloves at all times? Or maybe Rittmeister von Rauffenstein, the reluctant German commandant of the mountain fortress prison at Wintersborn? Or perhaps even the lonely widow Elsa living man-free with her young daughter and cow until escapees Lieutenant Marechal and wartime gourmand Rosenthal turn up in her garden shed?
Whatever Barnier’s thoughts, aside from his opening dedication, he never revisits the theme in his 500-page diary. But you do find the measure of the man nonetheless, and the glimpses afforded of what makes him tick explain more about Brexit than the thousands of hours of debate and countless pages of the Withdrawal Bill and associated legislation.
While Barnier has held a number of top political roles in both his native France and the EU, the impression is unavoidable that somewhere in the corridors of power he was looking for his place in history.
One by one we are delivered the names and titles of his underlings, so lucky to have been of service to the great man himself. We are given in detail the promotions, additions and exclusions from Barnier’s ‘task force’ as time passes, and these no-mark civil servants move seamlessly between highly paid posts in the European institutions. And then there are his endless references to former president Charles de Gaulle, who you can’t help but think Barnier considers more of an equal than a mentor.
The problem with many who obsess over history’s great figures is that they believe their interpretation is the only valid one. Anyone who dares to mention de Gaulle is quickly offered a Barnier interpretation of the man. At one meeting with Farage, the Brit asked, “What would de Gaulle say of what is happening at Brussels?” Barnier replied, “I am convinced that he would speak more about the independence of Europe in today’s world only on national independence. Just like [Winston] Churchill or [Konrad] Adenauer.”
Brexit minister Steve Barclay also makes the mistake of straying onto Barnier’s turf while speaking on the proposed Irish backstop. While giving a speech in Madrid, he declared, “Great political leaders have always respected the need to take risks. And it is the general of Gaulle who declared ‘a true statesman is someone who is willing to take risks’. A refusal by the Commission to take risks would be a political mistake.”
When meeting Barclay several days later, Barnier lectured him, “There are two things that may be important for you to know about General de Gaulle. The ﬁrst is that the General, in 1958, implemented the treaty of Rome, when he became President of the French Republic, despite all his reluctance. And that he was very attached to the common market. The second is that General de Gaulle liked Ireland, and that he had personal and family connections there.”
Not surprisingly, Barnier shared this strong affinity with Ireland, and his retelling of an invitation to speak at the Irish parliament not only reflects that but is used as a none-too-subtle guide to what he views as his rightful place on the world stage. He writes, “A rare privilege, since before me only John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterand and Tony Blair had been invited to speak here.” That’s the level of self-regard we’re dealing with here, and that extends to the primacy of his worldview.
So it is throughout his diaries that the EU negotiator dismisses views not aligned with his own, while congratulating himself for even giving them the time of day. Visits to his fifth-floor office in Brussels’ Berlaymont building from Farage, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a delegation of British business leaders and the various UK ministers and their sherpas responsible for Brexit are retold as proof of the great man’s willingness to listen.
No doubt Barnier would listen, but only when the orchestra was playing a tune he liked. He did the hard slog around 27 member nations of the European Union, reinforcing the idea that unity was the key to successful negotiating, and at the same time warned countries like Sweden and Portugal – with their own historic bilateral ties to the UK – not to be lured into going off-piste with the Brits in separate negotiations.
He was convinced that the British government’s goal was to open a second, or even third, channel in Brexit talks and sought at every stage to assure the EU members that this would undermine their own positions in trying to achieve a mutually beneficial divorce. While Theresa May was in Downing Street and Olly Robbins was running the Brexit team – supposedly under the guidance of not-quite-to-be-taken-seriously David Davis – Barnier felt reassured. But when Boris Johnson took over at Number Ten, the Frenchman was certain that serious skullduggery was afoot. No doubt, he was right.
The aloof, sometimes arrogant Barnier appears obsessed with decorating his office with flags and photographs of important moments in history, with the intimate receptions at private apartments owned by world leaders, with flying on French President Emmanuel Macron’s Falcon jet, with the exchange of gifts (he coos over a personalised Arsenal shirt from Corbyn), and with the unshakeable belief that Brexit is one huge mistake so that no matter who the Brits put up to negotiate, there was something fundamentally wrong with them.
The first minister for Brexit, David Davis, is dismissed as a lightweight and under-prepared, his successor Dominic Raab is considered “messianic”, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt is “bizarre” and while the third man to take the ministerial post, Steve Barclay, is received with some relief, his boss, PM BoJo, is labelled “baroque”.
For a man who makes speeches at the drop of a hat, on one occasion taking his notes directly from a malfunctioning printer to the podium, he is not what anyone would consider a natural orator. Off-the-cuff remarks are seldom referenced. His Twitter posts are the result of careful curation from his communications staff bereft of genuine wit or humour.
A favourite of his was a crafted response to Johnson’s putdown of EU expectations of an exit tax, when the PM told the House of Commons that Europe could “go whistle”. When questioned over the comment, Barnier told the world’s press, “I don’t hear any whistling, just the clock ticking.” On that apparently genius remark, he writes, “We worked it [out] with (staffers) Dan (Ferrie) and Matthieu (Hébert), who insisted that I mark a time, not too theatrical, between the two parts of the sentence.” Proof that overthinking sucks all the fun out of being clever.
As a man who has lived his career in the public eye, Barnier has fallen into the classic trap of presenting himself to the world as he imagines he should be considered, discounting the views of others. His constant references to protocol and what passes for courtesies in the overlapping world of politics and diplomacy have consumed him, making him a dry, humourless diarist in the process. Samuel Pepys he ain’t.
He would never understand that the reason Brexit came to be was because of people just like him. Disconnected, patriarchal, condescending and intolerant lifelong subscribers to a sense of superiority who have nothing in common with a single mother living in a council house in Derby.
At one point in his diaries, he raises hopes of the prospect of a Damascene conversion during a trip to the Danish west coast fishing village of Thyboron, where the reception afforded him reminds him of his days as a young regional politician in Savoy. His encounter leads him to remark, “I really need to meet the people on the ground and get out of my office.”
It’s soon forgotten, of course, and the arch-bureaucrat returns to his gilded lifestyle at the heart of European politics where he, most certainly, feels right at home.