Home Europe “Divorce is always negative” – Michel Barnier gives an overview of Brexit

“Divorce is always negative” – Michel Barnier gives an overview of Brexit

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As the European Union”s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, managed what some considered the impossible. He and his team came to an agreement with the UK for its departure from the union. They did so in 1600 days during which time twists and turns in the Brexit tale were frequent.

The former French Minister and former European Commissioner has now written a book that describes his time as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. It’s entitled “My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion” and will be available in English from October.

In an exclusive interview with Euronews, Barnier tells us about his book, Brexit, his thoughts on Europe and his plans for the future.

To watch the full interview of Michel Barnier, click on the media player above.

You have written a diary that tells the story of when you battled with your British counterparts to try to find a Brexit agreement. Now it’s been around six months since negotiations ended, what word would you use to describe all these years? Disappointment, relief, concern, disgust?”

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“Six months ago what is the word that would characterise the negotiations? I’d say tenacity and respect. Since then though, I would say vigilance because this agreement is only worth something if it is implemented and respected. We are worried both about fisheries in the second agreement we made for our future relationship and also for Ireland where the British are trying to distance themselves”.

You have occasionally painted an unflattering picture of some of your counterparts. It seems like you’re sometimes rather annoyed by their lies, by their low shots, by their way of avoiding real questions. Among all these people, all the personalities you encountered, which one left you with the worst memories?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“I’d rather say that I have a lot of respect for Olly Robbins, for example, who was Mrs May‘s European adviser. I have a lot of respect for Theresa May herself, who was courageous and tenacious. I’d rather stop there in regards to the people I’ve described. But perhaps it will encourage people to read the book”.

Reading your book, it seems like nothing is finished, that it’s just the beginning, and for Brexit terms to really unfold we will still have to be patient. We know that in recent weeks already there has been friction. We’ve heard about the sausage war with the European Union in regards to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We’ve heard about the lobster war in Jersey with French fishermen. Is this just the beginning?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“It is the beginning of a new relationship with a country that has left, that wanted to leave the EU. We are not the ones leaving, they left the European Union and the single market, and this has had many consequences that were not fully taken into account by the British or at least that were not explained well.

I am confident that this great country will honour its commitments even if it has intentions that I find difficult to understand because if you put things in perspective, the most important thing for the British, is to maintain a good relationship with the EU, its great neighbour and a market with 450 million consumers. If they were to question their commitments, I think it would be a serious problem for the trust that we require”.

You mentioned fishermen, I got the impression from reading your book that European fishermen have paid a high price because of Brexit, is that true?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“If you listen to Scottish or Cornish fishermen, they will tell you that this is a very bad agreement for them. I think it’s a balanced agreement. It couldn’t be a good deal for us because they could have got everything back. If there was no trade agreement, if we had failed in this negotiation, the British could have taken back all their waters and excluded us. So we avoided that. Let’s just say that it’s a good agreement, it’s not ideal, but now we must vigilantly implement it”.

Another major topic of discussion and negotiation was the famous border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Will this agreement remain viable in the long term because we know that violence is never far away? Recently, there have been tragedies in Northern Ireland, a journalist was killed. Is enough being done to cement this agreement between the two countries?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“First of all, let me remind you that the border we are talking about, the boundaries we are talking about, are between the United Kingdom, which Northern Ireland is part of, and not just with the Republic of Ireland, but with the whole European Union. That’s the problem. On this island, there are two countries with a long history, many tragedies. Recently, in Northern Ireland, the conflict between several communities caused 4000 deaths and there’s a fragile peace there like you said. I think the protocol we signed which was negotiated step by step, comma by comma, with Boris Johnson himself, not with Mrs. May, but it was Boris Johnson who signed this agreement, who asked his parliament to approve this protocol which was then ratified, this agreement is the only one possible. It is complex, it is sensitive, but it must be implemented. It consists of preserving what is called the “all-island economy”, preserving cooperation between the two communities, not building hard borders on the island because that was impossible, there would have been new troubles. For us Europeans, it was created to see that the products that enter our market are controlled. Let me remind you that a cow that leaves England by boat and arrives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the same country, the United Kingdom, that cow enters France and Germany, it enters Finland, it enters the single market, so we must control it from the point of view of food safety and health safety. We owe it to Irish consumers and to European consumers and citizens. So what was agreed by Boris Johnson himself, what we ask him to respect, what he signed, is basically that this cow and all other products are controlled by the British authorities with our cooperation on entry to the island, Belfast, at the port or at the airport, so that European rules, customs and health codes are respected”.

Putting aside the Irish question for a moment, you mention at the end of your book all the risks related to this historic agreement, this new trade agreement with the United Kingdom and you mention already social, fiscal and economic dumping.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“Yes, we must be vigilant, like I said. We knew that the British leaving the single market, leaving the European Union, wanted and want to regain their regulatory autonomy. What are they doing with that? Are they managing it properly by controlling things or are they using it as a social dumping tool against us? We will not accept social, fiscal, or environmental dumping because the United Kingdom, which is a very large country right next to us, that touches the European Union in Ireland, is the one with which we have the most trade in the world when compared to Canada, the United States and Japan. We trade the most with the United Kingdom because we were in the same market. Let me remind you that the British export 47% of their products to us and we export 8% of our European products to the UK. It is in their interest to behave properly and we have to behave properly as well to avoid these issues, unfair competition and look for a “level playing field”.

There are safeguards that you fought hard for, that exist. Are they enough to stop any temptations?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“I hope we won’t have to use them. They allow us to retaliate, to take compensatory measures, to re-establish customs tariffs on various sectors, to do what is called a “cross suspension”, i.e. to cross suspend this or that part of the agreement, or if necessary, even suspend the agreement itself.

I think everyone needs to pay attention because, really, that’s been one of my concerns for the last four years. I would like to put this divorce agreement in perspective. What is the perspective? The perspective is that the United Kingdom, that has become totally independent, and the European Union must and will face common challenges. I can name them. There will be other pandemics, we will need to cooperate like we are today whether it’s due to a human pandemic or an animal pandemic. There will be other COVIDS, unfortunately. There will be turbulence in the financial market that will affect us, just like the 2008-2009 crisis affected everyone and violently. There will be other attacks, there will be migration that we will have to control, migration especially linked to poverty in Africa. There will be climate change, there is climate change. Clearly, we will have to cooperate. That’s why, on behalf of the European Union, I made this agreement in that spirit. The divorce is based on a perspective of cooperation”.

Considering the content of your book, you could have called it: A Practical Guide to leaving the European Union. The divorce was very complicated, very painful, but in the end the United Kingdom left the European Union. Do you think this is enough to put off the 27 that remain onboard the European ship, or do you fear that other countries will one day ask to leave the European Union?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“We talk about successful negotiations. I don’t know if we can talk about success when you use the word divorce, because divorce is always negative. In any case, we wanted to limit the consequences and we succeeded because we wanted these agreements. So did the British. So we delivered Brexit. Even if we regret it. We have respected the will of a British majority who made this decision themselves on the 23rd of June 2016. I think the negotiations that were very long, were very transparent thanks to Jean-Claude Juncker. He authorised me to use total transparency. We never hid anything, you can see that in the book. We discussed everything with everyone about every subject and we did this for four years. This is what created trust and it’s the key to the unity of the 27 member states.

Everyone was able to see, the trade unions I met, the entrepreneurs I met, the national parliaments in each country that I met two or three times during public hearings, everyone was able to see in a practical way what an exit from the European Union is like. I think this partly explains why Mrs. Le Pen in France, Mr. Geert Wilders and Mr. Salvini, who now supports Mario Draghi in Italy, no longer talk about leaving the European Union.

But I’m wary. I think we have to be careful because there is always the same nationalism, the same intention to break up the European Union. Mr Farage told me that he wanted to blow up the European Union. We don’t have to please Mr Farage, but there is also a popular feeling that has been expressed and that exists in many of our European countries, in many regions. It’s a feeling of exclusion, of having no future, no jobs, insufficient public services, poorly controlled immigration. All these popular feelings are not populism. It is a popular feeling that is deep-rooted. In France, we saw it once again in recent elections, like in many other countries. We must react to it, we must change what needs to be changed in Brussels: ie less bureaucracy, more reciprocity in our commercial exchanges, less naivety. There’s a will, that has been expressed for two or three years now, to invest together by borrowing together, to have a digital industrial European policy. There are answers in each capital and also in each region”. 

You talk about the future and a Conference on the future of Europe has begun, a big citizen consultation. Do you really believe listening to citizens can lead to important changes?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“It is always important to listen to citizens and see how they feel, like they did in the United Kingdom, and that could also happen in our countries. So we must be careful and I think it is an important opportunity to put more democracy in the European debate”.

As long as it serves a purpose…

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“Yes, as long as it serves a purpose. For example, there is an idea, which this conference could take up, which I would like to see implemented in France, but perhaps it is better to do it on a European level. The idea is to evaluate or screen all European policies to see if they still have the same added value, to see if in some areas it is still useful or necessary to be together. Or could we trust the member states again? In certain areas, we could. So in these cases, it’s also important to explain why it is still necessary for us to remain together in other policy areas.

For example, trade, competition, agriculture, digital, these are subjects where we must be together. Then there are perhaps areas like health where we should be together and we were not. So this would also have an educational and democratic value. Do we need to make other institutional changes? We have made many. We’ve tried to do that a lot in the past fifteen years. I think that rather than talking about the mechanics of the engine, we should talk about the road we are on and why we are on this road”.

And talk about projects…

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“And projects. There are many challenges within the Green Deal, with our response to climate change. Climate change is fundamental, it will change everything in our home, in agriculture, transportation, construction, in our exchange. There are also many challenges in our digital and industrial ambitions that we need to reaffirm, and in the single market which needs to take on more human dimensions. We have to look at the map of the world as it is and look at this world with our eyes wide open. In this world, there are powers, continent-states that still have hope for us, but no longer expect us to turn up. There’s the United States, that is our ally, but being an ally doesn’t mean allegiance. There’s also China, India, Brazil and Russia. What do we bring to the table with them? Are we really at their table? That’s the question. There are areas today in the world, let’s be honest, where we Europeans, have to be united, otherwise we’ll become subcontractors and be under the influence of China and the United States”.

Let’s get back to some more down-to-earth European news. A Hungarian law has been a hot topic recently. It’s a law that many consider homophobic, a law that caused an uproar at the last European Council to the point where the Dutch Prime Minister even said “with this law, the Hungarians have no business being in the European Union”. Hungary is not the only one, there is Poland, and there is Slovenia. Mr. Jansa, who has taken office as the head of the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, has not escaped criticism either. For ten years, European values have been under attack, systematically called into question, and I have the impression that Europe is letting it slide.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“I don’t think that Europe is looking the other way. You yourself mentioned the debate that took place at the European Council. There are procedures that have been or can be initiated by the Commission to ensure that everyone respects the treaties. At the same time, you have to ask yourself what would happen in these countries if they were not part of the European Union, with its legal body, without rules, without co-habitation rules, the situation would be much more serious. I fight for the implementation of these procedures, for the use of pressure, to convince leaders that everyone should behave. I think dialogue is the best way to force them, to convince them, rather than exclusion”. 

On the same topic, you write in your book that it is late to breathe new life or give back the energy to the founding fathers of the EU, but it’s not too late, what do you mean by that?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“What I mean by that is that there is fatality only where there is fatalism. A politician, or a citizen, or the man that I am, cannot be fatalistic. We are not allowed. I think there are concerns, there are warnings and electroshocks. Brexit is one of them. There are external threats. There are internal threats to the European project, but there is also good news. There’s the capacity we have demonstrated to react to the COVID-19 crisis, to borrow together, to invest together. There is unity”.

With some glitches…

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“Yes, not everything is easy. To all those listening, I want to say that the European Union is not a federation. It is not a single state. There is not one European nationality, there is not one European nation. There are 27 nations, each with its own differences, its own national identity. We hold on to that and yet, we work together, we partly decide on our destinies and policies together. It can’t be easy. The price to pay for a united, but not uniform Europe is that we accept a certain complexity in the European system. We must explain this to those who are listening to us”.

One last question. You end this book with a very French resolution. You present a political project. My question is simple, you have been asked it several times already. Would you be interested in participating in your party’s primary elections, the Republican’s primary elections, to then run in the Presidential elections in nine months?

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator:

“This book does not end on just a French note, it ends on the note of someone who is a proud politician, a patriot and a European. For those listening, the book will be published in English on October the 1st, in Spanish on September the 15th and also in Greek and Romanian. I am happy that my experience and this story can be read in all or many of our European languages. Yes, I am ready to take part in the Presidential debate. I am a politician. I have the energy, ideas, the ambition, the capacity to be useful. I can’t tell you yet where and how because I have to check with my political family that I can be useful. This is my serious answer to a very serious question. For me, the time has not come yet to answer this, but I am preparing myself, I am seriously preparing myself because it is necessary to be serious in an election like this one and I am ready”.

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