Seven years on from the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, Brexit continues to divide opinion on both sides of the channel. There have been a multitude of books, mostly written by UK based academics and journalists, that have looked to unpack and explain the UK electorate’s decision to vote to leave the EU. Explanations for Brexit have been wide-ranging as scholars have poured over the minute detail to try to explain how the ‘no’ vote could possibly have happened. They have included the impact of the historic Eurosceptic legacy in the UK; the failure of the EU to embrace the reform agenda; the strengths and weaknesses of the referendum campaigns themselves; the prevalence of ‘demand-side’ conditions in particular immigration; as well as ‘supply-side’ explanations such as the short and long-term role played by the British media.
Beyond the referendum itself, there has been less literature on what has happened since the referendum. The drawn-out Brexit negotiation process which came to a head rather dramatically on Christmas Eve 2020 with the announcement of the agreement between Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson, has not received as much attention. Chris Grey’s book, Brexit Unfolded: How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to), is a rare jewel which seeks to explain and unravel the difficulties of the post Brexit settlement.
There has also been nuanced analysis emanating from across the Irish Channel about the post Brexit process such as Fintan O'Toole’s entertaining (but insightful) Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles. We can add to this some excellent work seeking to explain the complexities around the position of Northern Ireland in the negotiating process by experts such as Katy Hayward whose book The Irish Border is written with great clarity.
Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier’s La grande illusion: Journal Secret du Brexit, published in French in 2021, provided a chronological diary of the negotiation process from an EU perspective. It certainly shed some light on some of the processes and maneuverings which led to the emergence of a deal. Unsurprisingly given the target audience, the English translation version, published as My Secret Brexit Diary, dropped the reference to Renoir’s classic film La grande illusion on the dust cover!
Following on from Barnier’s Brexit diary, Stefaan de Rynck’s new book Inside the Deal: How the EU Got Brexit Done (recently published by Agenda) represents a more substantial and very welcome addition to the literature. It proffers measured and detailed insight into how the negotiating process finally led to a post-Brexit deal. De Rynck, who is now the Head of the European Commission's Representation in Belgium as well as a Visiting Professor at KU Leuven, was the Senior Advisor to Barnier on Brexit matters throughout the negotiations. As such, no one is better placed to write about the realities of the Brexit negotiations from an EU standpoint.
The book, which takes its cue for the title from Boris Johnson’s infamous mantra “Get Brexit done” provides detailed chronological coverage of the policy negotiations, and nuanced interpretation of the tensions and frustrations in the process of finalizing a deal with the UK government. It gets to the heart of the dynamics and the personalities involved on both sides of the negotiations. De Rynck strikes the right balance between detail and readability.
The book isn’t opportunism on the author’s part. As he states at the beginning of his analysis “one motivation for writing this book is that I believe EU civil servants should play an active part in public conversations.” What comes across loud and clear is that De Rynck is clearly someone who cares deeply about the integrity of the European project. This shines through in his writing. His criticism of the UK government and its actions are measured, which given the failings and the mixed messages of the UK negotiators at various stages of the process, is to his credit. He is not overtly critical of the key personalities involved. For instance, of Boris Johnson, he states, "contrary to how some media portrayed him, Johnson was not “uninformed” and “passive”. He engaged with the EU." This is a book written by someone with a diplomatic head. It’s not about point scoring.
There are several striking things that emerge from De Rynck’s anaylsis. The most remarkable of these is the genuine naivety of the UK government in its perceived belief that its negotiating hand placed it on an equal footing with a 27 member EU! De Rynck observes that the “UK tabloid media would often claim that the EU needed the UK more than the UK needed the EU.” This “EU needs us more than we need them” mentality clearly influenced the UK government and its negotiating team, egged-on by a London based, Eurosceptic press narrative eager to reinforce this false perception.
Added to this, what is also clear from De Rynck’s account is the strong emphasis placed by Barnier and his team on team building and trying to create trust both within the various institutions of the EU and between the 27 member states. “The unity of the 27 member states was a critical factor for the performance of Barnier’s team” De Rynck asserts early in the narrative. Critically, the EU team was able to keep its multiple actors on board.
Part of the success of the Barnier team, De Rynck confirms, was an emphasis on inclusivity and transparency, something for which the European Commission has been criticized in the past. As De Rynck points out in the introduction to the book: “The Commission’s unprecedented transparency policy for Brexit has made all official papers freely available online since May 2017, including position papers, internal documents sent to member states and draft legal texts on the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship.” This is a welcome departure.
It is apparent that the emphasis of the EU negotiating team was very much on stability and not volatility, which was in contrast to a divided UK negotiating team, split both within the Conservative government and also between the government and its civil servants. “For Brexit the EU acted as a united actor while Westminster tore itself apart” De Rynck extrapolates. One of the reasons why stability endured on the EU side was clearly the insistence by Barnier’s team on the integrity of the Four Freedoms, with no compromise on the Single Market. Bilateral attempts by the UK with individual member states to unpack the Four Freedoms, to enable the UK to maintain access to the single market without having to keep the Freedom of Movement, were never a serious, potential outcome.
The book reinforces some of the findings from my own research about how British political discourse and rhetoric with regard to the UK’s relationship with the EU remains beholden to the London based, Eurosceptic press which continues to exert an unhealthy hold over the UK/EU debate. As De Rynck notes “the need for an adversarial approach to negotiations with the EU featured repeatedly in opinion pieces in various UK media and affected the choice of words and metaphors.” Of Johnson and his relationship with the UK media, De Rynck states that his “focus seemed to be more on process and announcing artificial deadlines to look tough in domestic media, less on building trust and a longer-term relationship.”
It is clear from the book that the EU negotiating team, building their Brexit strategy around trust, unity preparation, and transparancy, achieved most of its objectives regarding the outcome. There are some regrets on De Rynck's part; for instance, that his team could not convince the UK government to agree on something substantial in the post Brexit settlement in the area of Security. Nevertheless, given the complications of trying to keep 27 nations united in formulating a deal acceptable to all, the outcome was a triumph of diplomacy and negotiation for De Rynck and his team. Contrast this with the UK government as it struggled to keep its own party united during the negotiations. We shouldn’t forget that the Conservative Party has had five Prime-Ministers since 2016!
Under Rishi Sunak’s leadership, there are signs that the Conservative government is at last building bridges with the EU post-Brexit which is to be welcomed. The recently agreed Windsor Framework is evidence of this. This is in stark contrast to the uncertainty of the years which followed the referendum leading up to the Brexit deal. At a book launch in Brussels in February, De Rynck talked of “an addiction with confrontation among the UK team with the EU”. Let us hope this addiction is a thing of the past and that more cordial UK/EU relations continue to emerge.
This is a book which deserves to be widely read and to reach beyond the usual academic and policy/practitioner circles. If you are interested in Brexit, the future of the EU, or global governance more generally, you should read it. It is one of those rare tomes that is a genuine, first attempt to write history! De Rynck should be commended for providing future historians with some fascinating material!
Davies, C. (2020, December 24). In their own words: how Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson signed off. The Guardian.
Chris Grey 'Brexit Unfolded'
Fintan O’Toole 'Three Year’s in Hell'
Katy Hayward 'The Irish Border'
Michel Barnier 'La Grande Illusion'
Michel Barnier 'My Secret Brexit Diary'
Stefaan de Rynck 'Inside the Deal'
Perrigo, B. (2019, December 13). “Get Brexit Done.” The 3 Words That Helped Boris Johnson Win Britain’s 2019 Election. Time.
Simpson, K., & Startin, N. (2022, August 1). Tabloid Tales: How the British Tabloid Press Shaped the Brexit Vote. Journal of Common Market Studies, 61(2), 302–322.
The Windsor Framework: A Good Step toward a Healthy EU-UK Relationship
Stefaan de Rynck 'Inside the Deal' book launch in Brussels, February 2023
Dr Nicholas Startin is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the European Centre for Global Education of the Global Governance Institute, and Associate Professor in European Politics and International Affairs at John Cabot University in Rome