Inside the turbulent negotiations over Brexit
The negotiations that led to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union lasted more than four years. During that grueling process, three different prime ministers came and went in Britain, shifting positions and occasionally roiling the talks. The one constant was Michel Barnier, the European commissioner in charge of Brexit talks.
This week, Barnier tells host Jenn Williams about challenges he faced in the talks, including one that couples often confront in divorce proceedings: how to dismantle the partnership and still retain a measure of goodwill.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
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JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
For today’s show, we’re looking at the negotiations behind Brexit, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. This all started on June 23rd, 2016, when the UK voted in a referendum on whether to leave the EU.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
The British people have spoken, and the answer is, “We’re out.”
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING:
For those who wanted to stay in the European Union, utter heartbreak.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH WOMAN SPEAKING:
Immigration was at the forefront of the Leave campaign for Britain to take control of its borders and its economy, national identity and culture.
JENN: The vote was close, but a slim majority of the British public, 52 percent, supported Brexit. And from that day until the final agreement, more than four years later, the UK had three prime ministers: David Cameron, then Theresa May and then Boris Johnson. And there were four different people who led the British side of the Brexit negotiations. But the European Union had just one chief negotiator the whole time: Michel Barnier. He was the European Commissioner in charge of Brexit negotiations. Barnier is a longtime French politician. He served as a minister in France a number of times, including as a minister of Foreign Affairs. After the Brexit negotiations, Barnier published a diary that he kept during the process. The English version is titled My Secret Brexit Diary. It was definitely helpful in preparing for this interview, and I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a great read.
Now, before we hear from Barnier, I’m just going to say that the Brexit negotiation was extremely complicated. We’re not going to be exhaustive here, but instead we’re going to focus on the key moments and the key issues, including what to do about the Irish border. Speaking of which, here’s a quick explainer on the Irish backstop, just in case you need it.
The backstop relates to what is potentially the biggest issue in the Brexit negotiations: the Irish-Northern Irish border.
JENN: So a big concern in Brexit was the one land barrier that the UK has with Europe. That’s the border between Northern Ireland—which is part of the UK—and the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU country.
BRITISH MAN: This 310-mile border has been completely open for 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to the border.
JENN: The Irish backstop was UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal to keep Northern Ireland within some aspects of the European single market until a permanent deal could be reached. This would have also avoided the need for customs controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. You’ll hear more about this soon. OK, here’s my conversation with Michel Barnier.
JENN: So tell me about the moment when you were approached and asked to be the chief EU negotiator.
The request was personal demand of Jean-Claude Juncker. He used to be, at that time, the president of the European Commission. And I was, at that time, his special adviser for defense. And I remember clearly that we flied to Warsaw, mid-July 2016, in the German sky. And we flied at that time for a very important meeting between the EU and the United States, between NATO and the EU, before a meeting where I took part between President Obama and the EU leaders. At that time, during this flight, Jean-Claude Juncker asked me two things. “Michel, could you agree to become the negotiator of the Commission for the Brexit negotiations?” And number two, not to say a word about it before you double-check this proposal with the European leaders; in particular, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president at that time, François Hollande. But my answer was yes, clearly, because it was an historical negotiation.
I have for a long time, for a very long time, great respect for the British people, for the UK itself. We never forget the British solidarity with France and the EU during the second World War. My very first vote—I was a young citizen in France. When I was 21, I was to campaign and to vote “yes” for the British accession to the EU during the French referendum in 1972. This is the reason why I always had respect for the British negotiator, because they were the negotiator of this great big country and large country.
JENN: One of the first things that you started to do, even before, you know, the actual negotiations with the UK, you had to get all 27 EU member states on board. You had to go talk to all of them and make sure that you knew what their interests were and get them all kind of on the same page. What did you say to convince them to trust you?
MICHEL: First of all, it was their own and collective decision to face this challenge of the Brexit together. And let me be very precise: a few days before the question of Jean-Claude Juncker asking to me to be the negotiator, European Council took place in Brussels, end of June 2016, and the EU leaders unanimously decided to face together. And the conclusions of this European meeting was—and remain,—useful, and my roadmap during this negotiation for four years. No cherry picking. Protecting the single market, in any case. Number two, defending and protecting the national interests of the EU members through the union. Number three, stability and peace in Ireland. Number four, building the best framework for the future cooperation with the UK. So these four points remained, all along the negotiation, my roadmap. And we choose, at the time, two methods. The first one was to have a, a personal link with the member states and the, and the head of states and the head of the governments through the transparency. It was totally unusual in Brussels to chair such a negotiation with a third country or future third country in a total transparency. Saying the same words to everyone, on every issue, at the same time. Saying the same words to everyone, 27 member states, on every issue at the same time. It has been my line and my method all of the negotiation. In addition, I traveled each and every week in one capital of the 27 member states, meeting the prime minister, meeting the national parliament, meeting the business committee and the trade unions in each capital, every week during four years. There are two methods: transparency and direct contact with the member states.
JENN: So getting—moving forward into the actual sit-down negotiations with the UK: I want to talk about Theresa May’s speech in January 2017. This speech where she said the government is looking for a total break from the EU. We call it “the Lancaster House speech.” In the book, you mentioned that you were astonished that she put all her cards on the table in that speech. How do you think that speech impacted the negotiations, and did it work against her?
MICHEL: The speech was very important. I think that this choice of a total break has been decided, by Theresa May, under the pressure of what she called, at that time, her majority; in the reality, under the pressure of the radical Tories. Clearly, this speech was surprising for us. To be frank, we didn’t understand, because leaving—not only the EU, but leaving everything, leaving the single market, leaving the customs union—was, in my view and our view, against the British national interest. And it was not an obligation to leave everything. Let me recall that Norway, for instance, and some other countries are not member of European Union. They are member of the single market, and some of them of the customs union. So it was a UK choice. We were surprised. We didn’t understand why, looking at the national interest of the UK. But it is a UK choice. The only thing I said at that time was that UK had to assume, itself, the consequences of this total break.
JENN: You eventually get this big first part of the agreement. This is November 2018. You and May’s government, you reach this deal. Theresa May then takes the deal to her parliament and puts it up for a vote. And the vote fails. And it goes up two more times and fails two more times.
MICHEL: She had no majority, because it was [UNINTELLIGIBLE] at the borders, and she failed. And finally she resigned, and Boris Johnson came into office and become the prime minister in July ’19.
JENN: I want to talk a little bit about Boris Johnson. When he came in, he basically immediately started to try to renegotiate, especially the Irish backstop. What was your perspective in dealing with Boris Johnson? And how did you personally negotiate your way through that? Because you did eventually get through it. What did that look like?
MICHEL: I have to say that the first team under Theresa May lead was much more traditional and professional, animated by concrete and economic results. The second team of—under Boris Johnson lead was much more driven by ideology and rhetoric. I always try to adjust and to find solutions for Northern Ireland issues and for the others; in particular, for Northern Ireland. We tried to adjust permanently during the first negotiation with Theresa May. Finally, we reached an agreement on deciding for the UK [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to be included into our custom union. Boris Johnson opposed, frankly, this—this—this idea, and we renegotiated Irish protocol with Boris Johnson to find a new solution with him, not against him. Not without him, but with him, with Boris Johnson himself.
JENN: So in October 2019, the UK and EU signed the withdrawal agreement, the first part of the UK’s exit from the EU. And the UK Parliament approved the agreement in early 2020. This included the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allows for goods to cross the Irish land border without the need for checks. But goods traveling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland have to go through customs checks at Northern Irish seaports. And if goods are going to the Republic of Ireland, they need to pay EU customs. But later in 2020, Boris Johnson actually tried to back out of the Northern Ireland Protocol, potentially breaching international law. Now you write in your book that at this moment, you actually lost trust in the UK negotiating team. Tell me about that.
MICHEL: I have been disappointed once, very strongly, the day where Boris Johnson and his government decided to put into question their own signature and the reputation of the UK when they presented in April 2020 this famous international market bill to put into question the protocol on Northern Ireland. And this is a day where I, I lost my trust in this team, because I think that when you signed such an important and serious agreement—international agreement, under international law—you have to respect your signature. This is the reason why I think that Boris Johnson and his team did not take the measure of their mission and take the measure of the consequences of their very own decisions. What is at stake in Ireland and Northern Ireland is stability and peace. And what we try to find, and what we finally found in Ireland, is just the operational and concrete solutions to the problem created by the Brexit. By nothing else but the Brexit. So we’ve tried to square the cycle, and finally we succeed with Boris Johnson to find a solution. And now this solution has to be implemented with pragmatism, with realism, without any kind of dramatization. We have to be responsible on both sides.
JENN: I like that point that you make about—you weren’t negotiating against Boris Johnson. You were negotiating with Boris Johnson, that you were working with Boris Johnson. Is that really how you saw the overall negotiations, that you were working with the UK to find a good solution, rather than working against the UK, trying to get the best solution for the EU?
MICHEL: I never worked against the UK. I always worked for the EU. And just to say you have decided to leave is your choice, not our choice. You have to assume the consequences, and we will not assume the consequences, even if I think that Brexit remain a lose-lose situation, a lose-lose situation. But the UK had, at that time and still have today, to face the consequences of its own decision. So I never worked against the UK. I try—always tried to find the best solution to protect the single market, to protect the interests of the EU and to organize the best divorce as possible, if I may say.
JENN: More about that divorce after the break.
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JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m Jenn Williams. Before the break, you heard about the long process to negotiate the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU, and about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempts soon afterward to reverse parts of it relating to the Irish border. Long story short, this didn’t work.
So it’s December 2020. Our guest, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, is talking to the lead British negotiator, David Frost. And Boris Johnson and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, are hashing out the final details of the second part of Brexit. That’s about the future relationship between the UK and the EU. A lot of it is about creating what they called “a level playing field”; basically, free but fair trade policies. They were running up against the January 1st deadline, and the very real possibility of a no deal, which would have been disastrous. So in the run up to Christmas, the negotiators pulled several all-nighters to finalize some pretty important issues, including fishing rights.
MICHEL: We, we were in the same building with David, David Frost and his team. And that at that—at that moment, in the very last hours of the negotiation, we’re at the level of the president of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and—and Boris Johnson himself, and they negotiate for the very last details together. We were very close, and we, we needed just to find a final agreement on the fishery issue and on some points of the level playing field.
JENN: Were you nervous? Were you scared that it wouldn’t—you wouldn’t resolve it?
MICHEL: We were tired. [CHUCKLES] On both sides, I’m sure of that. And but we were determined to stand on our position, because we knew, and—the president of the commission, and myself as a negotiator of the EU—we knew the mandate would be good for the member states. Just remember that each of the European countries are interested by the fishery issue. And some of them very, very interested. Not only France, but Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany. And so the leaders of these countries were very determined to get an agreement on this issue of fishery. And my mandate was very clear: no trade agreement without a fishery agreement.
JENN: So you propose that European fishers eventually give back 25 percent of whatever they catch to the UK. And Johnson and von der Leyen agree to it, as well as a five-and-a-half-year transition period. Now, while some European leaders, like French president Emmanuel Macron, were disappointed, you write that you thought the fisheries issue was always going to be a tough compromise for the EU. So then January comes. There was the, you know, do-or-die date. It was going to happen regardless. Either no-deal, Brexit, or deal. Finally, you agree, you get a deal. The UK completes its separation from the EU. How did you feel?
MICHEL: I was very calm, as I tried to be all around this negotiation. No passions, no—no emotion, no arrogance. Once again, the Brexit is a lose-lose game, and will remain a lose-lose situation for both sides. And I thought, at that time, that I just took my part to protect the EU and to build the best framework as possible for the future relation.
JENN: You mentioned when we first started talking that the very first vote you ever cast as a young man was to vote in favor of the UK’s accession. And now all these years later, you were the guy who had to negotiate Britain leaving. How do you feel on a personal level about that?
MICHEL: I didn’t change my mind. Six years later, for me, the Brexit remained a divorce, costly and painful. This is why, once again, the negotiation has been a negative negotiation, and which is why the Brexit was, and is, and still remain, a lose-lose situation. I think there is a lot of lessons to draw from the Brexit. It is the reason why I called my first chapter in my book “A Warning.” We have to be very careful. As I said, the Brexit is a failure for the EU for many reasons. You can find the same reason in Europe today, in many region of Europe—in France, in Belgium, in Netherlands, in Italy. The main—social anger, popular sentiment about security, unemployment, uncontrolled migration. And also, if I can be frank, political, economical elites—deconnection. Deconnection from the ground, from the people.
JENN: You said that the European countries are starting to learn some of those lessons. What are the main lessons for you? And what do you think needs to change to make sure there isn’t another Brexit?
MICHEL: On our side we are—we are beginning to draw the lessons: less naivete in our trade relations, more protection to our borders. Just after the crisis of the COVID, together, for the very first time, we have decided to invest passively in the future. I think we need to make the proof of the added value of the EU. And it is linked to the daily work in Brussels, where we hope even more democracy and less bureaucracy. The EU has begun to work and to start to draw the lessons of the Brexit.
JENN: And then my last question for you is: what did you personally—politician, negotiator, diplomat, all different hats that you’ve worn—what did you learn? Any lessons for you, personally, about the experience of negotiating Brexit?
MICHEL: The Brexit has been, all along the process, a school of patience. The second lesson is, it’s possible to reach an agreement by using respect. And I have been always and every day of this negotiation, respectful for the UK and for the negotiators for the UK, for the British people. And the third point is, I think much more than before, that we need to be together in the global world we face today. It’s the reason why the EU is so complex. Twenty-seven nations, 27 people with their culture, with their differences. And we need to keep these differences between us. But we have decided to pool a part of our policies, a part of our destiny to be stronger; together, face all these challenges. I think we are right.
JENN: That was Michel Barnier, who led the EU’s negotiations with the UK on Brexit. The English version of his book on the topic is called My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion. After the negotiations ended, Barnier served on the European Commission heading the Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, and in 2021, he also ran for president in France in the Republican party primaries.
The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. And this week, additional production help from Yurui Wu. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show.
Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe. Just go to foreignpolicy.com/subscribe. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at dohadebates.com.
On the next episode, a gunman holds worshippers hostage at a synagogue. And the rabbi keeps the conversation going with the assailant for 11 hours.
A lot of conversation. We were just trying to humanize us, personalize us, right? That was a big part of what we were trying to do. We tried to help him see us as real people.
JENN: That episode, coming up on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.