Barnier book tells inside Brexit story ahead of possible bid for French presidency

The EU's pointman on Brexit, Michel Barnier, releases a book on Thursday recounting the insider track on Britain's acrimonious departure and teasing his ambition to become France's next president.

Barnier book tells inside Brexit story ahead of possible bid for French presidency
Former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: John Thys/AFP

Written with his trademark courtesy, the book, The Grand Illusion: A Secret Diary of Brexit will disappoint those hoping for salacious revelations from his four years of negotiating with UK counterparts to fix the terms of the Brexit divorce and the follow-up trade pact.

Despite holding copious notes from a period that saw Brussels and London butt heads over everything from citizens’ rights, money, Northern Ireland, fishing, energy links and import-export regimes, Barnier mostly couches his criticism in insinuation.

For instance, he compliments former British prime minister Theresa May, whose proposed Brexit plan was thwarted by the UK parliament, as “a courageous and tenacious woman surrounded by many men who put their personal ambitions ahead of their country”, according to the French edition of the book.

This contrasts with current British leader Boris Johnson – and May’s predecessor David Cameron, who called the 2016 Brexit referendum – who, Barnier says, bear “a real responsibility before the history of their country”.

Nigel Farage, the former British MEP who played a key role in popularising Brexit, was “just as cordial and polite in private as he was violent and demagogic in public”, writes Barnier.

Barnier describes clandestine manoeuvrings during the EU-British talks as well as some stab-in-the-back politics in Brussels. He writes of leaked information, secretive meetings organised with 15 minutes’ notice, surprise phone calls from the other side, and sealed anonymous missives, while in public gifts and friendly words were exchanged.

The closing stages of the EU-UK negotiations, he said, were marked by British “smokescreens” thrown up in an effort to gain leverage.

A last-minute British proposal on fishing introduced just days before a deadline ran out on producing the trade and cooperation agreement was a bluff, he said, a document “filled with traps, false compromises and backsliding”.

His EU team was forced to take it apart, step by step, to the point of “exhaustion”.

The 70-year-old – a former EU commissioner and French minister who has now retired from Brussels – has been multiplying French media appearances and photo ops widely seen as setting the ground for a possible presidential bid.

His decision on whether to run or not in France’s 2022 presidential election is expected to be revealed in autumn.

In the meantime, readers can take what they will from a closing exhortation in his book: “Together, we are laying the base for a new prosperity…. Our work starts with France.”

The English translation of the book is due out in October.

Member comments

  1. The nights me and “Dickie” Davis had in Luxemburg? Was Barny there? No. But I was.

  2. Johnson’s on a roll, he’s got everything he needs , the EU has one major fault, it can’t say no, and re fishing, Brexit does mean that the UK waters belong to the UK

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.