Revealing insights into the EU mindset: Lord Frost reviews 'Inside the Deal'
Brussels, October 2019: (l-r) Boris Johnson, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker attend a news conference following the announcement of a new Brexit deal | Alamy
Despite being worthy and a little dull, Stefaan De Rynck has nonetheless delivered a reasonable and valuable account
Few eras in our modern politics have been so traumatic as our extrication from the European Union after the 2016 referendum. That being so, it is surprising how few first-hand accounts of it have yet emerged.
On the United Kingdom side we have only Gavin Barwell’s diary of his time in Downing Street as chief of staff to Theresa May – not a history of the talks as such, though it certainly reveals why the May government bungled them so badly – and from the EU we have the European Commission's former chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s diaries, some Irish accounts, and now Inside the Deal, the insider view from one of Barnier’s close advisers, Stefaan De Rynck.
Readers of other reviews of this book may have been led to expect a highly coloured narrative and a denunciation of the UK's approach. It isn’t that at all. Of course De Rynck criticises us, sometimes fairly, as when he takes issue with those British politicians who always thought that the German car industry would force a deal. Unusually among EU observers, he is fair to Boris Johnson, noting his mastery of the detail at crucial moments. Overall he’s reasonable, worthy, maybe even a little dull.
It’s more focused on the May government than Johnson’s. There is little granular detail on the 2020 talks, possibly not entirely surprisingly given that Barnier was sidelined by his own side in the crucial last couple of months of negotiations. But it is well worth a read because the narrative is so revealing of the EU’s own mindset during these crucial years.
In the introduction De Rynck writes that: “May was more successful in getting concessions from the EU as she and her team chose a less adversarial approach." Here, “concessions” is to be translated as “provisions that kept the UK subject to EU rules without a say”. That is certainly what the May government wanted. It wasn’t what we wanted and that is why we acted differently. My sense is that Barnier never really understood this, never really believed we genuinely saw some kinds of deals as worse than no deal, and that is why we so often seemed to be talking past each other in 2019 and 2020.
Unusually among EU observers, he is fair to Boris Johnson, noting his mastery of the detail at crucial moments
De Rynck also reveals the EU’s own tendency to see its positions as self-evidently correct and requiring little explanation. Our proposals on Northern Ireland customs in 2019 are dismissed simply as “unworkable” and De Rynck comes close to suggesting, implausibly, that the EU understood Northern Ireland’s complex politics better than we did. He doesn’t really get why we reacted so robustly early on in 2020 to the suggestion that our geographical location meant that we couldn’t have a standard free trade agreement. And he doesn’t often think about how EU positioning came across to us – for example, in the EU’s reluctance to work either on an outline political deal in summer 2020, or on detailed texts in the autumn, until EU prior demands on a level playing field and fisheries had been accepted by us.
He also skates lightly over some of the incidents I remember as most crucial and dramatic. He mentions the Luxembourg meeting with the-then president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2019 – but does not touch on the subsequent shameful public treatment of Johnson by Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, which went a long way to destroying our confidence in fair handling from the EU side. He gives a partial account of the awful October 2019 phone call with the then-German chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that our briefing was “biased” – yet I heard the call and I heard her say the words reported. He doesn’t mention the moment we were told in mid-2020 that we wouldn’t be able to move “a kilo of butter into Northern Ireland”, crucial in crystallising our anxieties about the way the Protocol was being weaponised. And he touches only briefly on the disastrous December 2020 dinner with the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, among the most acutely awkward events I have ever been at, thanks to the visible internal dissent within the EU team.
Overall it’s a technocratic account, certainly valuable to historians, but maybe lacking colour and the telling anecdote. He includes one about me, but unfortunately his suggestion that I closed the deal by saying, “You know what? It's only f-ing mackerel,” was actually a tweeted joke by the think tanker Robert Colvile. Colvile subsequently made that clear, noting that it was better to have to explain his jokes than “see them included in the write-ups”. Oh well. History is determined by those who write it – so readers must wait for my book to find out the rest.
Lord Frost is a Conservative peer and former UK chief negotiator for Exiting the European Union
Inside the Deal: How the EU Got Brexit Done
By: Dr Stefaan De Rynck
Publisher: Agenda Publishing
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