My Secret Brexit Diary—A Glorious Illusion: Michel Barnier

Translated from French by Robin Mackay
Published by Polity Press

In a nation-wide referendum on 23 June 2016, the British voted, by a slim majority, to leave the European Union. The process of leaving the EU was long-drawn-out and complicated.  Like many people outside the UK, I developed Brexit fatigue. This meant that the Brexit diary of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, was not high on my list of books to read.

But when my husband bought the book and read out bits of it to me, I was intrigued. I picked it up and was pleasantly surprised. Who knew that Brexit could be so riveting?

Michel Barnier is a seasoned French diplomat who has held several cabinet posts, including Foreign Minister, and Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. This book consists of extracts from his diary from 24 June 2016 to February 2021.

What Barnier thinks of Brexit is made clear by the epigram, a quote from King Lear: “Beat at this gate that let thy folly in, / And thy dear judgement out!”. And having read this book, I completely agree (not that I needed much convincing to begin with). 

The British people were not fully informed about the consequences of Brexit. The then Prime Minister David Cameron was so sure of winning the referendum that he did not think through the ramifications of leaving. To make matters worse, during the negotiations, the British team was often ill-prepared—sometimes deliberately so—unlike their EU counterparts. You might recall the photograph of the meeting between the EU and British teams in July 2017, where the only documents on the table are on the EU side: the British do not even have a notepad among them.

The EU, on the other hand, was extremely well-prepared with a competent team. Barnier and his colleagues spent a lot of time visiting the 27 EU countries to discuss Brexit and make sure their governments’ concerns were taken on board. The strategy paid off: during the negotiations, the EU stayed united, in spite of the British trying to drive a wedge between them. An attempt by Boris Johnson to meet separately with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron did not succeed as both leaders wanted to maintain a single negotiating line.

I doubt that those who have been following the Brexit process closely will find any major revelations here. However, for those like me who were satisfied with the broad details of Brexit, My Secret Brexit Diary is fascinating. I finally understood what the Irish backstop was and why it was so difficult to come to an agreement. And, of course, the personal insights make this book worth reading.

One of the things that struck me was just how intertwined the EU is: leaving the Union affects everything, from flights into European airports to fishing rights (one of the contentious issues), as well as security and defence.

What the British were trying to negotiate for was unrealistic, wanting to leave the EU while “asking us to maintain the benefits of the internal market in countless different areas: service providers, electricity interconnection, auditing firms, lawyers, financial services”.

One of the consequences of Brexit was that Britain could no longer be involved in the control of the encrypted PRS signal[1] that is important for defence. The British were furious about this, although they were the ones who had decided to leave. Johann-Dietrich Wörner, President of the European Space Agency summed up their attitude: “They are giving back the keys to the apartment but they want to carry on using the kitchen”.

Barnier has a lot of respect for Theresa May. “She hangs in there, stands her ground, hunkers down and attacks when she has to”… [she] doesn’t like the Brexit she is obliged to implement”. He is much less impressed by the rest of the British team. In a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Barnier gets the feeling that Boris Johnson “has not taken the time to go into the details himself with his team” while von der Leyen is well prepared.

There is a lot of detail here: the negotiations over fishing rights, customs arrangements with Northern Ireland, and all the complex agreements that had to be untied so Britain could leave. What comes through is Barnier’s frustration with the process, which did not have to take as long as it eventually did. And now that it’s done, he says, “To this day there is still a complete lack of understanding in the UK of the objective—and in some cases mechanical—consequences of the UK’s choice to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.”

One thing seems fairly certain. The Brexit process is bound to discourage any country that is contemplating leaving the European Union.

Buy from UK / USA

[1] The Galileo Public Regulated Service (PRS) is an encrypted navigation service for governmental authorized users and sensitive applications. European Union Agency for the Space Programme website,

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