Michel Barnier successfully steered both sides to believing they won the negotiations, something that will be required to make the future relationship work.
After four and a half years Michel Barnier’s role as the EU chief Brexit negotiator has finally come to an end. He will continue as an advisor to Commission President von der Leyen, but his full time responsibilities are largely passed on to Maros Sefcovic as co-chair of the UK-EU institutional council.
The EU have every right to be satisfied with what he delivered. The two agreements completed with the UK, a Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, met key EU objectives. The UK was not able to gain the benefits of the single market without membership and had to pay what the EU saw as money outstanding. Citizens’ rights were largely safeguarded, and there will be no border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Yet the UK government also claims satisfaction with the outcome of the negotiations, which may be Barnier’s greatest success given an often fractious process. He successfully understood what Boris Johnson could sell as success, possibly better than any of his UK negotiating counterparts. It is this skill that may be most missed in Brussels after this month.
Forging EU consensus
On appointing Barnier in July 2016, then Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he “wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job”. We have largely forgotten what a daunting task this seemed.
The EU’s shock of a country deciding to leave was compounded with a lack of precedent on what institution should handle the departure. There were concerns that the UK government would prove skilled negotiators and divide the 27 member states. Meanwhile some excitable UK media dubbed Barnier’s appointment an ‘act of war’ on the basis of his record as Commission for the single market and financial services.
It isn’t always clear through all the processes of a negotiation to see the important moments, but looking back we can clearly see that the EU’s primary strength throughout the negotiations was crafting and maintaining a simple, united position. At first that was no negotiation before the UK triggered Article 50, then it was only resolving divorce issues before talking about the future relationship, finally it was no cherry picking of the single market.
Reaching, maintaining and defending those positions took considerable effort. There was extensive consultation with Member States, numerous trips to capitals, and an unusual level of transparency in the initial Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. Such actions built on lessons from the abortive TTIP negotiations, but success was never a given. Above all there were plenty of moments when it looked like Barnier could be sidetracked, but ultimately that only happened in a controlled way.
The UK chose differently, with the lead negotiator role successively held by officials, first Olly Robbins and then David Frost. They reported directly to the Prime Minister, though with other members of the Cabinet involved. Discussions outside of a core team were limited, secrecy the order of the day, and positions sometimes more about domestic rhetoric than substance. At one point the UK side criticised Barnier for mainly talking to his own side, not seeing this as a crucial part of negotiations.
The Barnier approach seemed to work better. EU consensus held better than that in the UK.
The importance of a French politician
Arguably many politicians could have forged an EU consensus around Brexit approach and content. The Commission is after all particularly experienced in running trade talks. But where Barnier excelled was his understanding of the UK, one that possibly only a Frenchman could have provided. For behind the policy differences of the UK and France as EU member states always lay a certain similarity of style.
Barnier seemed to understand the UK government’s belief of a grand power regaining independence. Perhaps of all EU member states only France would conceivably have left the EU in the same way, talking about going out into the world. He seemed to understand the UK need to lose their tempers in public every so often with the EU, and the attacks from the UK tabloid media. He shrugged it off, and continued mostly as before. That is harder than it looks.
Equally Barnier seemed to understand the UK’s ultimate negotiating position, or at the very least that of Boris Johnson. Towards the end of negotiations a belief the UK would not walk away without a deal delivered a better result for the EU than could have been expected on fish and the level playing field. Barnier may even have understood the UK’s negotiating objectives better than the UK lead negotiators.
Deep understanding of the other side, together with maintaining your own side’s discipline, are two of the key attributes of a good negotiator. Together they allowed Barnier to craft a deal acceptable to both sides. While outside observers may declare the EU the winner on substance, that isn’t the public view of the UK government.
Lessons for the future – and other EU neighbours
EU relations with neighbours have been difficult, and that’s likely to continue. The EU can seem an overbearing neighbour whose market power forces engagement with little goodwill.
As opposed to the usual technocratic approach Barnier brought a politician’s eye to trade relations. For all of the UK government’s complaints, which would probably have happened with any lead negotiator, they benefitted from a lead who understood politics as well as trade. Both the UK and EU might consider that as a future negotiating model, particularly for relationships never likely to be smooth.
UK-EU relations have entered a new chapter on a reasonable basis thanks in large part to Michel Barnier. That is perhaps the most we could have asked for in the circumstances. Perhaps the leadership that is needed now is more about relationship and confidence building. Certainly it is worth the EU thinking beyond usual engagement structures, as Juncker did so well five years ago.
David Henig runs the column ‘Perspectives’ on the politics of global trade for Borderlex. He is also a UK director at the think tank ECIPE.