Reading Barnier’s diary: Brexit and the nature of European integration

By Michał Matlak

When a politician publishes a book, there is normally a suspicion that he or she wants to run for office. Even if this is the case for Michel Barnier, who is likely to run for the post of French President, it is barely visible in his book La grande illusion. Journal secret du Brexit, as his call to the French nation is placed at the very end of the book. Apart from that, the journal is focused on issues that are rather boring for the larger public: a pretty detailed account of the Brexit negotiations, the arduous process of building a united front of the EU countries vis-a-vis the UK, the main challenges and the broader meaning of Brexit for European integration.  

 The last issue is probably the most interesting one.

Barnier shows how Brexit and Brexit negotiations defined two crucial traits of European integration: its depoliticisation, and the indivisibility of the four freedoms constituting the single market.

The depoliticisaition of European integration is visible in his idea to take negotiations away from everyday political conflicts, build a consensus, and rely on experts and bureaucracy, including influential legal services. If there are any signs of political conflicts, or diverging interests, Barnier and his team are there to ease the tension, to find a compromise and to avoid any kind of controversy. 

The United Kingdom’s way of doing things was certainly radically different: British bureaucracy was fully subordinated to everyday politics. Prime Ministers’ speeches, internal fights within the Conservative and Labour Parties,  and fights between these parties all drove the process from the British side. The politicisation of this issue ruled out the possibility of a cross-party compromise which, for example, could have led to the acceptance of the agreement negotiated by Theresa May. This stands in stark contrast to Barnier’s work to preserve the consensus in the key EU institutions: the European Council, the European Parliament (which created a special body – the Brexit Steering Group –  consisting of the members of the biggest party groups whose aim was precisely to create a compromise) and the Commission.

Brexit negotiations were thus a confrontation of two political forms: that of a multi-national compound polity built on compromise, liberal values and quite a distant link with the citizens, and a classic form of the state with democratic politics as its core, and all the Machiavellianism that entails, but also perhaps with a closer link to the society and its will.

Barnier is right to be unsure whether Brexit was solely a result of the lies told by the Leave campaign before the referendum. Even if this played a significant role, the strong will of the English to rebuild its identity against the European project has been identified as a very strong factor. The fact that centrist intellectuals like John Gray were in favour of Brexit shows that one cannot understand the Brexit vote only as a result of the lack of knowledge about the EU.

The second trait about the nature of European integration described by Barnier is the indivisibility of the four freedoms constituting the single market, with the negotiations reinforcing a clear link between them. The single market, in Barnier’s view, creates an equilibrium on the basis of trade and services. It reinforces the economic character of the European project – the negotiations dealt much less with security (with the exception of Northern Ireland – but also there the most important issues were economic), ecology or political cooperation. All these issues were important, but were subordinated to the economic challenges.

Interestingly, Barnier considers the changing nature of trade deals, when discussing the work on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement concluded after the divorce talks were finalised. As he says, today the role of the level playing field and common social, ecologic and other standards is as important as waiving tariffs, showing that the EU’s trade deals are another prominent tool for influencing the external world (along with the Enlargement and Neighbourhood policies). As always the EU is most successful when it puts the economic at the forefront.

When one reads a “secret diary” there is a natural interest in the author’s opinions about other people. In general, Barnier doesn’t give a lot of strong opinions: he writes well about almost everyone, apart from most of the British politicians and officials (especially Dominic Cummings) and one European official: Martin Selmayr.

Selmayr is a villain of the piece: Barnier accuses him attempting to conduct parallel negotiations undermining his position as a negotiator and putting the EU’s interests in peril. He also describes Selmayr’s intrigues that aimed to stir up a conflict between himself and Jean-Claude Juncker. This stands in stark contrast to the praise Barnier gives to almost every EU politician and official with whom he has ever worked.

Another lesson which can be drawn from the book and Brexit more generally is the perseverance of the nation state as a political form. We live in the age of the decline of various ideologies, except for one: nationalism. Whether it is the United Kingdom or United States, and so many other countries, national sentiments drive a large part of our politics. Nationalism does not necessarily need to push against European integration, but it is definitely a challenge: strong national feelings are not always accompanied by strong European feelings. Irrespective, whether we want to or not, the European project has to take into account national sensibilities, the feeling of losing control, and cultural challenges. These are all issues that European integration does not feel comfortable with. 

It will be interesting to see if Barnier, a personification of such a depoliticised governance form like European integration, will succeed in the domain of pure politics represented by the French presidential elections. My suspicion is that you can be either good at one or the other, but not both.

Collaboration: Oliver Garner

Michel Barnier “La grande illusion. Journal secret du Brexit (2016 – 2020)”, Gallimard 2021.

La grande illusion: Journal secret du Brexit (2016-2020) (Hors série  Connaissance) (French Edition): Barnier, Michel: 9782072880018:  Books

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