Today, I was granted an audience with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. I requested this appointment after Sir Nicholas Clegg, Lord Adonis and Ken Clarke were able to see the great man in Brussels in October.
Not unreasonably, I thought Barnier might be interested in hearing a different point of view about the future of our country to that offered up by this Remain obsessed trio – one that more accurately represents the 17.4m people who voted Leave. Brexiteers do make up the clear majority in Britain, after all.
Securing this encounter was not easy, however. Initially, Barnier’s office suggested we meet in the members’ bar of the EU parliament. Finally, he agreed to see me in a formal setting. And so I walked through the doors of the EU Commission in the freezing cold Belgian capital this morning.
After a short wait in the lobby, I was given a courteous and business-like welcome by Mr Barnier, but no photo opportunity was forthcoming. Contrast this with Jeremy Corbyn, who even gave him an Arsenal football shirt in full view of the cameras when they met last October, and it’s safe to say I was probably a less welcome guest than some who’ve made the same trip recently.
It took about a minute to walk the Commission building’s curved corridor festooned with the flags of all 28 EU member states, giving Barnier ample opportunity to emphasise to me his respect for each nation. He also pointed out that the British flag is still among them. This was another way, as I saw it, of him suggesting he means it when he says the EU does not seek to punish Britain for voting Leave. But boy does he have a funny way of showing it.
Once inside his office, I was pleasantly surprised to be offered coffee. (Experience has taught me that if coffee is not offered during a meeting, you’re probably about to be sacked or are in for a rollicking of some kind). And so down to business.
My main objective was to make sure Mr Barnier heard some pro-Brexit views that I suspect the Conservative government has not yet explained to him. I began with a question suggested by one of my LBC radio show listeners, namely: does he understand why Brexit happened in the first place? His answer was a confused message about £350m per week for the NHS and misinformation and untruths being told from the Leave side.
I also asked whether he thinks uncontrolled mass immigration from the EU had been the single biggest issue in the mind of Brexit voters. His look of total incomprehension confirmed his reluctantance to accept the unvarnished truth about the consequences of letting 10 poor, former communist countries join the EU.
When I moved on to asking what discussions there have been on future border arrangements between the UK and the EU, he seemed astonished. This was all to be decided in the future, he said. It was at this moment that I knew my reason for seeking this meeting – namely that the views of millions of people who voted Leave simply haven’t been taken into consideration – were justified. Indeed, I suspect the subject of EU migration and how the UK government handles it in future has barely even been discussed yet.
On trade, I asked what damage a ‘No deal’ might do to the EU economy. Barnier replied coolly that talks on trades, goods and services will begin in March. This was most enlightening in its way. After all, October 2018 is the conclusion date for these talks, followed by a ratification period by national parliaments ahead of an anticipated Brexit date of March 29, 2019. I now believe Barnier, the man who once said in a threatening tone “The clock is ticking”, is happy to play for time and see Britain sweat.
On physical goods such as German cars, French wine and Belgian chocolates, he said he is relaxed about a Canada-style trade deal. Small wonder given that EU states sell Britain £70bn more worth of goods every year than we sell them.
But as I moved the conversation on to financial services, things changed – as did his body language. He is adamant that Europe’s financial stability must be protected. To him, this means the UK operating under the same financial rules as in the EU, with the involvement of the ECJ, without which there could never be a full deal on financial services.
Over the last few weeks I have spoken to some very serious business players who want to know where they stand. They say to enter another lengthy period of renegotiation and ratification without the prospect of a sensible end result would simply be a waste of time. They will no doubt be alarmed by Barnier’s stance.
In the first phase of the Brexit negotiations our government has conceded a great deal. As we move to phase two, Barnier seems to be asking us to go a bridge too far. Unless he is prepared to give a little ground to the Leave side, the clamour will grow for the United Kingdom simply to leave as quickly as possible on WTO terms.
After 40 minutes together, my view is that Barnier believes in the European project as a substitute for religion. In other words, heretics will never do well. I find it strange that he had a picture of General de Gaulle on his wall – a man who believed in a Europe of countries. I guess his interpretation of history and mine are very different. This is why we had the referendum in the first place.