We shouldn’t call the Brexit talks ‘negotiations’ — they’re nothing of the sort
MICHEL Barnier positively bristled. He sternly removed his glasses, like a schoolteacher preparing to hand down the mother of all bollockings, and clasped his hands tightly together beneath his chin.
As the assembled gaggle of reporters watched on silently the Frenchman fixed us with a withering gaze, the kind that even cockroaches would struggle to escape alive. If they could, his eyes would’ve flashed red.
And then came the torrent of anger. Words streamed forth from his mouth at twice the usual speed, a furious tirade of French that even the translator struggled to keep up with. Bemused reporters glanced at one another.
At the same time those hands — still to the point of statuesque just a moment ago — now whirred manically above the podium, jabbing, swiping, creating whole new shapes hitherto unknown to science.
The EU’s chief negotiator, it was plain for everyone in the room to see, was royally pissed off. But what had caused this uber eurocrat, picked for the role precisely because of his coolness and unflappability, to spout off so?
It was, inevitably, a question from a British journalist. But it wasn’t the kind of direct, uncompromising and frankly insulting query you might expect from the UK press pack. He had hardly faced the Spanish Inquisition.
No, Monsieur Barnier had simply been very gently asked what concessions he had been prepared to make to his British counterpart on the opening day. That was the cause of all this anger.
His angry response — which boiled down to ‘over my dead body’ — tells you everything you need to know about the cavernous misunderstanding between the UK and Brussels that sits at the very heart of Brexit.
British ministers have, up until now, held a rather quaint attachment to the idea that our leaving is going to take the form of a good old-fashioned business deal — the type of transaction we do so well.
In finest Anglo-Saxon tradition they’ve presumed we’ll get round a table, thrash out a sensible compromise and be done in time for a swift 50cl of Leffe or two down at Kitty O’Shea’s before home time.
Fundamentally, this is because Britain is a Calvinist, free-market orientated, economically liberal country based on Common Law. In contrast most of Continental Europe is Catholic, protectionist, painfully bureaucratic and subscribes to the Napoleonic code.
So it is that the UK has entered the talks still operating under a fundamentally misguided notion that the Europeans are like us and see the world how we do. They are not, and they most certainly do not.
If this monumental delusion continued to persist at the very highest levels of Government — and I fear it probably did — then it was well and truly burst by that opening day tirade from Mr Barnier.
The very word ‘divorce’ — a choice of language dictated by Brussels, not London — tells you everything you need to know about how our European counterparts see Brexit.
As far as they’re concerned, it’s a simple legal transaction. We have decided to terminate our marriage with Brussels, and there are rules and regulations in place that state how that shall be carried out.
There will be no compromises, as Mr Barnier so bluntly put it. After all, you don’t come to a compromise with a judge do you? The law is the law and it must be applied — end of story.
And if there are no compromises, then ultimately there is no negotiation. There is nothing to negotiate — there is simply a set of requirements Britain can choose to accept or reject.
In that vein the EU sees itself as the judge and the UK as the plaintiff. And it will hand down its verdict in compliance with the European rule book Britain itself signed up to willingly as a newlywed in 1973.
British talk of gentleman’s agreements, of shaking on Brexit and trusting each other’s word, has utterly alarmed eurocrats. They genuinely do feel, as Jean-Claude Juncker once put it, that we’re in another galaxy.
And that’s because in truth we are. After five decades at the heart of the European project, many here in Brussels have come to the conclusion the British still don’t really understand the EU at all.
In the years to come there may be genuine negotiations, involving give and take, on our future trading relationship with Europe. But for now, all Brussels is talking about is the terms of our departure.
And it is here we can help bridge the communication gap by ceasing to look at the Brexit process itself as a negotiation. It isn’t, and we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.