The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, aptly dubbed “Brexit,” carried considerable consequences for the UK, the European Union (EU), and the international system. Deemed by experts as the most substantial overnight shift in commercial relations in the modern age, the British departure from the regional bloc impacted nearly every imaginable economic sector in the region.1 For the roughly 500 million citizens living in the UK and the EU, these impacts were felt immediately, with the UK bearing the brunt of the consequences.
Given the gravitas of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, there is little doubt that policymakers and scholars alike have considerable interest in understanding the dynamics that inspired the UK’s “Leave” campaign, as well as the long-term implications of Brexit on Europe’s economic and political landscape. Michel Barnier’s book, “My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion,” uses his uniquely qualified position as the European Union’s lead negotiator over all Brexit related matters to paint a clear image of the day-to-day negotiations. Barnier served in this capacity for nearly five years, and his book, true to its name, reads as a fascinating collection of personal diary entries that explore the Brexit negotiations in great detail and offer insight into what the future of the European Union may look like.
Barnier’s entries vary wildly in length. Some contain only a snippet of conversation or an interesting anecdote, while others comprise several pages worth of close detail related to specific meetings, policies, and negotiation strategies. By organizing his entries chronologically, Barnier concisely lays out the timeline of Brexit negotiations, paying key attention to each side’s defining issues and sticking points at different stages of the negotiation process.
Before delving further into the book’s contents, Barnier’s political background is worth examining. An unabashedly self-described Gaullist from the early age of fourteen, Barnier has been involved with politics for nearly his entire life.2 His first political appointment came in 1978, when he was elected to the French National Assembly as a member of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party.3 He then held several positions within the French Cabinet throughout the 1990s, including as the Minister of the Environment and Way of Life and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.4 He then shifted focus towards European politics, holding senior positions within the European Commission, including roles as the Commissioner for Regional Policy and Constitutional Affairs and European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services.5 It was through these previous experiences that Barnier credits his understanding of the European Union’s inner workings, and it is this knowledge that he argues enabled him and his team, colloquially referred to as “Task Force 50,”6 to navigate the daunting challenges posed by Brexit.
When discussing the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU, Barnier stresses that he made the need for “sequencing” clear from the first negotiation meeting in 2017.7 He uses the term sequencing for a key reason. The negotiation process comprised two conceptually distinct, yet related, areas of negotiation: first, the teams needed to agree on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal and, only then, could the teams begin discussing the future relationship between the UK and the EU.8 Following this structure, the book’s first section covers the years 2016-2020, concerned entirely with the specific negotiations over the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. Barnier’s second section covers the following two years, 2020 and 2021, providing insight and focus on the negotiations regarding the future of EU-UK relations.
A central message of this book is Barnier’s resolve to identify the critical issues for all twenty-seven member states in the European Union and ensure their will is reflected in the eventual agreement.9 Barnier makes a concerted effort to show deference to the EU member states because, after all, “it is the UK that is leaving the EU, not the other way round.”10
Many of the diary entries are entirely centered around the multitude of trips he took to the capitals of all twenty-seven member states, with the express goal to understand the issues facing each individual country and to then incorporate these issues into the final agreement. Despite the UK’s best efforts to disrupt this unity throughout both negotiating processes, Barnier remarks that he was struck by the continuing cohesion of “the 27.”11
Another defining throughline is Barnier’s depiction of the UK administrations’ unwillingness to accept the ramifications of Brexit. He makes careful note of speeches from both former Prime Minister Theresa May and Prime Minister Boris Johnson that, in his words, were not “ … fully thought through, assessed, and discussed.”12 Barnier repeatedly makes reference to his belief that the British continue to seriously underestimate the legal complexity and consequences of Brexit.13 Upon leaving the European Union, Barnier points out that the United Kingdom has effectively left 759 different agreements, negotiated with 168 different countries.14
The full range of these agreements, from security agreements to social and legal agreements, are undoubtedly important. However, these issues received considerably less attention than economic issues during the run-up to the Brexit vote. During the rigorous campaigning process for the “Leave” camp, many pro-Brexit politicians, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, claimed that by leaving the EU, the UK would take back control of over 350 million pounds each week. While widely refuted at the time, the claim held considerable sway over British voters.
Barnier takes issue precisely with this way of stretching the truth. At best, he argues, this tactic could be construed as disingenuous campaign rhetoric. At worst, it is indicative of the British government’s willful intent to mislead the public over the actual costs and benefits of leaving the European Union.
Barnier decisively sides with the latter argument, arguing as late as May 2020 that “there is still a complete lack of understanding” in the UK regarding the consequences of their choice to leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.15 The lack of understanding stems from the consistent efforts of the British government to misrepresent, as well as their fundamental inability to understand, the “true consequences” of Brexit.16
For example, Barnier spends several pages describing a white paper released by the British government in 2018 detailing their negotiations plans. Barnier scathingly criticizes several elements of this proposal, calling it a “dysfunctional system” working to the sole benefit of British citizens by “cherry-picking” elements of the European Union that the United Kingdom would be able to retain membership in.17
Barnier fervently believes that the European Union, while imperfect, will continue to serve a crucial role in modern European and global politics. He makes clear that it “will never be the EU that fails on common ambition,” arguing that the strength of the institution lies in its ability to find unity among its members.18 Given that the European Union presides over a vast area of political, economic, and social affairs, Barnier depicts the future of Europe as centered around the strength of the institution itself.
Barnier voices the need to learn from the Brexit saga as a way of moving forward. He is well aware of the “old demons” lying dormant in Europe, particularly referencing the current rise of populism and the potential “resurgence of fascism or authoritarianism.”19 As such, Barnier contends that the Union must respond to the “popular sentiment, social anxiety, and fear of a loss of cultural identity” that populism so effectively exploits in order to foster a more unified and prosperous Europe.20
Brexit represents a remarkable departure from standing international norms, as no other formal member state has ever invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the legal mechanism that enables separation from the EU. The fact that an EU member state evoked Article 50 and subsequently, and “successfully,” left the European Union raises a number of important questions for other member states. Could other states with ruling parties or laws that clash with EU politicians and laws, such as Poland and Hungary, credibly threaten to leave the union? Could these states extract concessions in return for their agreement to stay? In 2016, Barnier makes reference to the Euroscepticism prominent within the Polish government, finding that their language regarding Brussels is “much the same as in London.”21 Since there is no mechanism for states to be removed from the European Union,22 Barnier implies that it is likely states with radically different agendas than the EU will choose the option of a “dirty remain,” retaining membership within the regional bloc while causing issues over the predominance of EU laws and courts, electoral practices, and migration.23
It is worth noting that Barnier appears to include several sections that reflect his intentions for seeking future office. He often reminisces over his previous work within the French national government, making several direct appeals to the people and natural beauty of France, stating that “my home … my country” provided the necessary energy and strength to carry out the negotiation process.24 The book’s release nearly perfectly coincided with his announcement that he would run in France’s upcoming presidential elections. Although his presidential bid was ultimately unsuccessful, losing in the December 2021 Republican primary, it remains clear that he will continue to be a leading voice in French and European politics for years to come.
Barnier’s book provides unprecedented insight into the inner workings of Brexit’s negotiations. While countless scholarly and second-hand accounts of the Brexit process have been released in recent years, Barnier’s tenure as the European Commission’s chief negotiator enables him to provide an unparalleled perspective on the negotiation process. While his position as a champion of the European system remains apparent within his writing, Barnier provides the relevant information and reasoning to make compelling and objective arguments for the future necessity and strengths of the European Union. While there is still much more to be unraveled in light of the UK’s departure, Barnier’s book has much to offer for those interested in gaining a first-person perspective on the Brexit negotiation process, as well as current and future policymakers interested in delving deeper into recent shifts emerging across the international architecture of international organizations and multilateral agreements.
Evan Mann is a first-year graduate student in the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University, and he currently works as an Associate Editor of Democracy and Society. His current research interests include democracy promotion, democratic backsliding, and corruption in developing countries. Contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mueller, Benjamin, and Peter Robins. “What Is Brexit? and How Is It Going?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Dec. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/brexit-uk-eu-explained.html.
- Barnier, Michel. My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion. Translated by Robin Mackay, Polity Press, 2021, 49.
- “Michel Barnier.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Barnier.
- Barnier. My Secret Brexit Diary, 15.
- Full title: Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50 TEU.
- Barnier. My Secret Brexit Diary, 56.
- Ibid, 38.
- Ibid, 24.
- Ibid, 58.
- Ibid, 357.
- Ibid, 35.
- Ibid, 45
- Ibid, 53.
- Ibid, 333.
- Ibid, 209
- Ibid, 164, 166.
- Ibid, 301.
- Ibid, 161.
- Ibid, 161.
- Ibid, 26.
- Kamath, B. Rahul. “Could Poland Leave the European Union next?” ORF, 22 Dec. 2021, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/could-poland-leave-the-european-union-next/.
- “Poland Is a Problem for the EU Precisely Because It Will Not Leave.” The Economist, Oct. 2021, https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/10/14/poland-is-a-problem-for-the-eu-precisely-because-it-will-not-leave.
- Barnier. My Secret Brexit Diary, 56.