Written by Alastair Buchan
The noted English wit, Miles Kington invented a fake language named franglais which strangled French by inserting English words at random. The point being to mock the English and their inability to even try to master French. Though no longer with us, I’m sure Mr Kington would have described Michel Barnier as “Le grand fromage des Brexit negotiations.”
Certainly, Mr Barnier has little doubt that he won the day for the Europeans by outthinking and outmanoeuvring the British negotiators. He is too courteous to say this out loud, but the tone of his account leaves little room for doubt, certainly in his mind. And who can blame him?
The overall approach of the British side reeks strongly of political opportunity or, as Michel drily points out, “there is no doubt a domestic political dimension to this.” Take the events of 10 September 2020. Earlier in the month, the UK negotiators led by Mr (now Lord) David Frost cancelled negotiations and refused to resume them unless the EU publicly recognised UK “sovereignty.” A week later Frost suddenly changed tack from threatening to violate the Withdrawal Agreement and started playing nice.
Barnier assesses the situation: “Paradoxically, after these large-scale British offensives, the closing meeting of this week’s round is quite constructive … on trade and goods Mr Frost says … “On the whole I agree with what you are saying.” The same for customs “We need to find an internal balance,” geographical indications “It’s possible to move forward.”
“What could explain this change in tone?” ponders Michel … “Either David Frost is putting on a facade of goodwill by showing a constructive attitude. Or the British really do want to negotiate.” He goes to his files and digs out a 2013 article by a journalist. And there it is. Boris Johnson writes: “Let us suppose you are losing the argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in the circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.’
“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
(Those ‘mates’ should give you a clue to their source. It was Lynton Crosby, the Australian later employed by Boris to run his election campaign in 2019!)
The tactic of personal deep research is used very shrewdly and even entertainingly by M. Barnier. On page one alone he sets the scene for the times ahead by quoting from an interview with the British war photographer Sir Donald McCullin, who says he doesn’t like ‘this Michel Barnier’ and he doesn’t want to be “told by Brussels what I’m allowed to put in my bin.”
He also quotes Gordon Cartwright, a fictional character in a long-forgotten novel, The Commissioner. “We have to clip the wings of those bureaucrats in Brussels. Clip their wings, keep them under control, don’t you agree? Fair Trade and competition is one thing, but bloody-minded interference is something else altogether.” Who wrote these fictional but prescient words? Why, Stanley Johnson, dad of Boris.
Now I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone sitting on the British side of the table during those long nights had dog-eared copies of Memoirs of Hope, the two volume memoirs of Charles De Gaulle, or any other literature, in their briefcases next to the roast beef and English mustard sandwiches. And the dead cat of course.
I offer this free tip to Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary: dig out these Gaullist memoirs. They might come in handy for M. Barnier has recently revealed his intention to run for President and adding that he is great admirer of Charles de Gaulle.
Finally, the book is not really enhanced by a series of stiffly posed photo opportunities around Europe. But one image speaks a thousand words. It has Barnier and his deputies Sabine Wayand and Stephanie Riso on one side of the table and David Davis and his team on the other. Each of the EU negotiators has a large pile of papers in front of them; none of the British side have anything in front of them other than their clasped hands.
My Secret Brexit Diary, Michel Barnier, Polity, £25