Comment

Inside the Deal. How the EU Got Brexit Done, by Stefaan de Rynck: Book Review 

Denis MacShane / Jan 2023

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Gradually the truth is dawning. As Sherelle Jacobs the Daily Telegraph’s pro-Brexit comment editor wrote in a devastating New Year article for her paper: “It is time for the Leave camp to start saying the unsayable: the Tories have made such a hash of Brexit that the project is probably now unsalvageable.”

In June 2016, Boris Johnson told an adoring crowd at an eve-of-referendum rally in Wembley Stadium about “hundreds of millions of people in Europe who agree with us but who have no vote.”

Three days after the plebiscite Johnson promised Daily Telegraph readers: “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down …there will continue to free trade, and access to the single market.” 

It is a cheap shot to point out that both of Johnson’s statements were and are lies. He is soon to be before the House of Commons Standards Committee to answer charges of serial lying about No 10 parties during the Pandemic lockdowns .

Sylvie Bermann, who was France’s ambassador in London during the Brexit era describes Johnson as “un menteur invétéré” – an inveterate liar.

Ambassadors of grand self-important countries like France do not normally call the prime minister of a neighbour, friend and ally a liar but that is why a majority of Tory MPs voted to end the Johnson’s premiership as his level of lies got too much for even the Brexit market to bear.

But the point is not that Johnson told lies but he got everything wrong. The rest of Europe has fled in horror from Brexit. Rightist allies of Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin who dislike the EU as much as any Daily Telegraph editorialist have dropped calls to leave the EU, or even the Euro. Marine Le Pen, Georgia Meloni, and Viktor Orban are all pro-Europeans now.

With Johnson reneging on his 2016 promise to stay in the Custom Union and Single Market and allow Brits to maintain freedom of movement on the continent, Britain has got steadily poorer.

Europe, in contrast,  has become stronger as a result of Brexit. The collapse of the flagship BritishVolt firm to make batteries for E-cars means the UK will lose out of the E-car market. Japanese firms are turning to Germany to open new business. The two or three new trade deals required Britain to accept worse terms than EU nations.

UK GDP is down 5.5% thanks to Brexit. Exports are down 11%. There are labour shortages everywhere as Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit means the UK denies itself doctors, nurses, truckers, fruit and vegetable pickers on the grounds they are European citizens.

Europe far from being weakened by Brexit has moved strongly to issue Eurobonds, handled the Pandemic well, seen Nato get bigger as EU neutral states like Sweden and Finland come off the neutrality fence to unite with the rest of Europe against Putin.

No political party or movement has been inspired by Brexit. Johnson’s “Global Britain” pal, Donald Trump, is also disgraced.

Meanwhile the lives of millions of Brits of all ages have been messed up as they lose the automatic right to live, work or retire in Europe thanks to the ultra hard Brexit Johnson imposed on Britain and the failure of opposition parties to oppose or propose an alternative. This culminated in the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn being offered not once but twice by a Labour Party infected by various Brexit parasites including anti-Semitism.

So how did all this happen? Books by British journalists and academics offer perfectly good monolingual chronicles of the Brexit years and quarrels within and between parties. But no British writer has bothered to go and ask European deciders and negotiators about Brexit.

Now Stefaan De Rynck, a close advisor to Michel Barnier and at the heart of EU’s Brexit process 2016-2020, has given us details of the sheer incompetence of British negotiations. Civil servants were hampered by having to take orders from three of the worst prime ministers Britain has ever had – Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss.

Their arrogance and mistaken assumptions about the cards Britain held are breathtaking. For centuries London outplayed its continental partners/rivals/adversaries. But this statecraft had vanished when it came to getting a good deal for Britain over Brexit.

De Rynck explains in pitiless details the endless mistakes. Britain made no efforts to build any political alliances with ruling or influential politicians in Europe. It was as if the Brexit vote rendered irrelevant any obligation to obey the normal rules of statecraft or diplomacy.

An English loudmouth could announce what Britain’s desired goals were and it was assumed all politicians in Berlin, Warsaw, Rome, or Paris would fall into line. The first half of the book on the May negotiations is embarrassing to read as the sheer ignorance of the Prime Minister and her advisors of how European politics worked is fully exposed.

She had professional advisers – senior experienced officials like Olly Robbins, Tim Barrow or Ivan Rogers who just gave up as Mrs May was unable to offer any leadership after she decided to UKIPise the Tory Party in the autumn of 2016.

Theresa May went to see the Danish PM and sat opposite him saying not a word for some minutes. Finally the Dane tried to help her” “Tell me Theresa, what do you actually want from the EU?”

“Read my speeches,” she abruptly told the Brit-friendly Dane. The Danish Ambassador in the UK who was present told me his boss had no idea of how to handle the tactiturn British PM. “She is the oddest person I have ever dealt with in Europe” he told his ambassador.

De Rynck reports Barnier travelled non-stop to visit EU prime ministers. In the view of the Dutch, Swedes, Romanians – everyone – Theresa May’s hopes of cherry picking advantages of the Single Market while rejecting all other rules and laws drawn up over decades of European construction were utterly forlorn.

The Finns, normally an ally of Britain, told Barnier they would be happy with a Norway-type arrangement.  But. said the Finns, if London refused to accept single market and customs unions rules then there would have to be a free trade agreement such as EU had with a third country elsewhere in the world and Brits would lose all the access Boris Johnson had promised would not alter as a result of the vote.

In January 2017 – anticipating the early election where she lost her majority  Mrs May blustered about “No Deal in  Better than a Bad Deal” and The Times faithfully relayed No 10 spin: “May to EU: Give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed.”            

There was more bluster about creating “Singapore-on-the-Thames”, a deregulated, low-tax competitor to Germany or France while promising more cash for public services and infrastructure – the economic illiteracy  that ended Liz Truss’s premiership.

The Chancellor Philip Hammond was even more ignorant about the EU than Mrs May quoting President Trump’s praise for Brexit when the US president said a “great deal” was in the offing.

Barnier met more than once with Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer, the lawyer Corbyn named as shadow Europe minister. De Rynck notes laconically “Starmer thought that some tinkering with free movement of EU nationals was possible without giving up single market membership. ‘You cannot have three and a half  freedoms,’ Barnier’s team told Starmer, referring to the EU’s uncompromising position on the 4 freedoms of movement – of goods, of capital, of professional services and of citizens  - that Margaret Thatcher fought so hard to obtain in the 1980s. 

Successive British prime ministers had been in the forefront of enlarging the EU to take in post-communist countries like Poland or Romania. Now Mrs May discovered that Warsaw, Bucharest and other new EU states were fierce in defending the rights of their citizens to free movement and told Barnier to offer no concessions that would treat their voters as second class Europeans.

De Rynck describes visits by British parliamentarians whose ignorant views – Labour as much as ex UKIP Tory MPs like Craig Mackinlay - are cringe-making to read. In the London press Steve Barclay, May’s Brexit Minister, compared Barnier unfavourably to General de Gaulle. It was an ignorant comparison as Barnier told me his politics were based on “social Gaullism”. In every office he has there are pictures or busts of de Gaulle. Barclay’s English provincialism and sheer ignorance of the contours of French political affiliation is embarrassing from a British minister educated at Peterhouse College, Cambridge though recalling the petty nationalism of Peterhouse Toryism perhaps not.

Mrs May’s loss of a majority made her a prisoner of obsessive anti-EU Ulster Unionists devoted to the memory of the Europhobe Dublin hating Iain Paisley.

There was nothing Barnier could do about internal UK politics. He spent every waking moment visiting 27 EU capitals to brief governments, and national parliamentarians and influencers to ensure the EU position remained united. Mrs Merkel made clear to German business that Germany needed a giant European single market and German carmakers and other exporters should not play footsie with Brexit Britain.

The arrival of Boris Johnson made little difference except that he completely gave up his June 2016 vision of a sensible Brexit along Norway or Swiss lines. He found a mid-rank British diplomat, David Frost, to do his bidding. Frost studied medieval French before entering the Foreign Office where he rose very slowly to be ambassador to Denmark. He left to run the Scotch Whisky Association. There he was charged by his new employers to get removed the 150% tariff India imposes on Scotch. Frost led a delegation of Scottish whisky chieftains to New Delhi. The Indians offered at once to lift the hated tariff and allow drinkable whisky to go on sale in India.

In exchange they said the UK should allow all 1.4 billion Indian citizens to enter the UK without a visa. The bosses of the giant names of Scotch whisky thus had a brutal introduction to the reality of all trade deals. There is never something for nothing. And politics lies at the heart of all trade negotiations.

Johnson and Frost kept repeating May-era mantras about fishing. “It’s only fucking mackerel” snarled Frost as he gave way to Barnier’s demands on fishing quotas.. Frost “deleted issues May had fought hard to obtain” De Rynck writes. No 10 tried to bully Barnier using Twitter to accuse the EU  negotiator of “duplicity” early in 2020.

Barnier was happy to concede freedom of movement for “students, researchers, and youth exchanges” but Johnson rejected the offer. The pathology of hostility to Europeans – all presented as unwanted, unwelcome ‘immigrants’ had sunk too deep

British editors in London rarely challenged the line from David Davis or David Frost that Britain was getting all London wanted from the feeble Barnier teams.  Yet “British correspondents in Brussels shook their head in disbelief at the creativity of their London desks on converting standard good faith clauses into important wins “to protect UK interests,” Dr Rynck notes.

Donald Trump’s EU ambassador proclaimed that under Johnson the UK had a great future outside the EU. For decades observers of the EC then EU said European construction lacked the key component of creating a sense of political identity – namely an outside opponent everyone could agree should not be allowed to prevail. In the six years after Brexit, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson provided in their different ways someone or a force that most of Europe could agree was inimical to the core interests of Europeans.

Meanwhile after 5 years of failed negotiations Britain is now the sick man of Europe. As the Daily Telegraph’s Sherelle Jacobs writes: “Brexit was meant to make our economy more competitive and yet the the Government has increased taxes to a peacetime high. Brexit’s only major achievement to date is that it has scathingly exposed the ineptitude of this country’s political class.”

 

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

January 2023

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