Even in its final hours, the settling of Britain’s future trading and security relationship with the European Union was a painful affair, dragging deep into the night and on into Christmas Eve morning, with Downing Street insisting right to the end that nothing was certain. But it was finally delivered. It could not have come soon enough for two exhausted teams that had been squabbling over, crafting, drafting and redrafting legal text in a final two-week run-in under the headache-inducing strip lights of the Albert Borschette conference centre, a drab building in the EU quarter of Brussels.
It was like “negotiating in a 1970s car park”, a British official said.
German government officials in their nearby embassy had enjoyed a running gag as they counted off the Brexit deadlines that had slipped past over the last year. But the joke had worn thin for British officials at the coalface. “I want to go home,” said one. “We were supposed to get a deal two weeks ago and I’m having to wash my underwear in the hotel room sink.”
As Christmas Day drew closer, morale was sapping, frustration showing. The lack of trust between the sides heightened a sense that it all could go wrong even in the excruciating final hours. “My experience with the UK is that you have to be careful right to the last minute,” the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, privately warned.
As told by diplomats, ministers and officials in Brussels, Westminster and across Europe’s capitals, this is the inside story of an extraordinary negotiation that slalomed precariously through a global pandemic, the infection of its two chiefs, a prime ministerial brush with death and Britain’s attempt to break international law.
“But the ending was in the beginnings,” said one EU official.
For all the celebrations upon leaving the EU on 31 January, greeted in No 10 with a bong on an ornamental gong, Boris Johnson was allergic to much of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future relationship negotiated over the previous gruelling three years, government insiders recall.
To the prime minister’s mind, it kept Britain chained to Brussels, not only through the agreements on citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland but in the outline for the trade and security deal. “The point of Brexit is to diverge,” Johnson told officials.
Largely negotiated by Theresa May, the deal had been finalised in haste by the new prime minister as he sought to “get Brexit done”. But he would not leave the transition period on the terms as set out, Johnson would tell his team.
Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost, was equally scathing of the settlement agreed by his predecessor under May, Olly Robbins. He intended to do things differently. “At the outset he said they would want us to end up in their orbit,” said a British official. “He was completely clear that a non-negotiated outcome was not a failure.”
Speaking to an audience at the Université libre de Bruxelles on 17 February, Frost made clear he wanted the UK to end the negotiations with “a huge advantage over the EU – the ability to set regulations for new sectors, the new ideas, and new conditions”. He instructed his team, given union jack lanyards for their access passes, to be “polite” but “robust”.
“He gave us a four-box grid with different modes of negotiating: teenager, tank, mouse and leader,” said a British negotiator. “He said the EU tends toward the first two, and the UK is too often a mouse. We needed to be the leader in the room.”
There was a “reckoning to come”, said a UK official – with one explosive confrontation to follow down the line.
The first act of repudiation of the previous years of Brexit prevarication was Johnson’s insistence that the UK would not extend the UK’s transitional membership of the single market and customs union beyond 2020. It set a deadline for diplomats on the other side of the Channel, who were working throughout February in Brussels’ Europa building.
There would be no time for the EU to debate where tariffs might be selectively applied on British goods, as in Brussels’ deal with Canada, which allows for lighter-touch demands on maintaining environmental, social and labour standards.
It would be “off the shelf”: zero tariffs. While the British government wanted to “unshackle”, the EU goal was to protect European businesses from being undercut and to ensure its fishing industry would not be suffocated through loss of access to British waters.
Emmanuel Macron’s representative was in no rush – frustratingly so, to his peers. “He started off in style with what was to be a year-long habit of very long lectures on principles to everyone,” said an EU source.
But Paris was not alone in wanting to keep the status quo on fish and tie the UK to future EU standards. “These were the two elements cranked up in [Barnier’s negotiating] mandate,” said an EU official. “And the evolution clause was one of the points they reintroduced.”
The addition of the evolution clause, or ratchet clause as it was known in Downing Street, would compel the UK to not only maintain current EU standards but potentially develop equivalent regulations as Brussels upgraded its rulebook – a scenario No 10 wanted to avoid at all costs. It would dog the talks to the end.
Round one: no handshakes, no masks
After the smiles for the cameras at the start of round one of the negotiations at the commission’s Berlaymont HQ in the Belgian capital – no handshakes between Barnier and Frost, but also no masks – it was clear that the British were not even content to uphold current EU rules.
“It was a constructive and friendly atmosphere,” Paulina Dejmek-Hack, a senior member of Barnier’s team, reported to diplomats. “But the notion of common high standards in paragraph 77 in the political declaration has been drawn into question … They stressed sovereignty and taking back control constantly.”
It was ominous – but a far darker cloud was gathering on the horizon. On Friday 13 March, as coronavirus spread across Europe, about 70 diplomats gathered in a room in the Europa for a “feverish” three-hour meeting to finalise the EU’s proposed legal text.
“Everyone was looking at each other, people were coughing, everyone was freaking out,” said a source. “Why are we playing Russian roulette with our lives?” asked one diplomat.
Within days, both Barnier and Frost had tested positive. A fortnight later, Johnson was in St Thomas’ hospital’s intensive care unit fighting for his life. “Brexit was suddenly irrelevant – an embarrassing manufactured problem,” recalled an EU official.
Weeks of negotiating time were lost. The phone line to Brussels from the EU capitals went cold. Downing Street was in chaos.
The talks were moved online, with all the familiar frustrations, not least for Barnier, 69, who struggled with turning on the camera or microphone.
“‘Can you hear us?’ ‘Can you mute your mic?’ The documents wouldn’t share,” recalled one EU participant with a shudder. “You miss out on the body language. You get insight into officials’ bedrooms and their children who sometimes pop up. But you lose the ability to confer on your own side.”
The backgrounds to the virtual negotiations on Webex, a conferencing platform, offered some comic relief. “One woman on our side sat in her kitchen with a bouquet of lillies on one side, a fuck-off set of knives on the other,” said an UK official. “It was perfect for her. The best room on their side was one guy’s blood red room with strange hats and a birdcage with what looked like a dead bird in it.” EU group chats initially full of serious negotiating steers were taken over by “very, very dark side remarks”.
It seemed obvious to EU officials that the transition had to be extended. “We can’t be doing this in a year, this is mad,” one EU source said. “At that point we were stonewalling, which was easier done remotely,” said a British negotiator. “I turned the camera off.”
Then a message was delivered by the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove: “I just want to inform you that we will not be extending the transition period.”
By June, on a videoconference call between Johnson and the EU’s institutional leaders including the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, the major problems were evident.
Johnson displayed puckish enthusiasm. “Where’s my good friend Michel? Michel, are you there?” boomed the prime minister down the phone. “He got on with Barnier,” chuckled a source.
But Barnier was insisting on “parallelism”. Without movement on fisheries and level playing field provisions such as the evolution clause, nothing else would budge.
A summer frost
Relations between Frost and Barnier grew difficult. The British negotiator’s habit in the negotiating room of dismissing the EU as “your organisation”, as if it was a bowling club, grated with his French counterpart. “You ask for respect for your sovereignty, David, but please respect ours,” Barnier privately chided Frost.
The claim from Downing Street was that Barnier had “lost control” of the fishing negotiations. In truth, he was playing a waiting game.
In his gilded office in the Élsyée Palace, Macron told aides he could not contemplate French fishermen losing out to Brexit Britain before his 2022 presidential election battle with the far-right Marine Le Pen. “Can you imagine it?” asked a French official. “Incroyable.”
But they would have to move. “We just hoped that they would know when,” said an official in Brussels.
Other member states were not always sympathetic to Paris’s stubborn stance. “We don’t care about your fish – get on with it,” one eastern European ambassador told his French counterpart.
During the conference call with the commission president, Johnson said it was time to put a “tiger in the tank”. Barnier took him at his word, making what he thought was a significant offer by keeping the European court of justice out of the trade and security deal.
On 7 July, the EU negotiating team arrived in London for renewed face-to-face talks in the basement of the business department, soon to be known as “the cave”.
“They hated it,” said a British official. “We’re the UK and we are ready to trade with you,” screamed a large sign above the heads of the EU officials entering the subterranean rooms. Every wall was covered in union jack-plastered posters from the “GREAT Britain” promotional campaign. “Is this just for us?” asked one amused EU official.
Barnier believed there was business to be done, but the British refused to move. Their response was “yeah, no, sovereignty, blah, blah,” said an EU source. “It was disappointing. A wasted summer.”
The talks were in the doldrums. On 6 September, Johnson warned that the UK would walk away if a deal was not done by an EU leaders’ summit on 15 October.
A new low
Worse was to come. That evening, a Financial Times story flashed up on the phones of the EU negotiating team. It was a leak of draft legislation that would undermine the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement by giving ministers power to overwrite clauses – and break international law in what a minister later described as a “specific and limited way”.
“Barnier was amazed,” admitted one EU official. “What the fuck?” said one source when asked for the reaction of the wider EU team. Shock turned to red-hot anger.
Barnier was due to go to London to start the next round of talks. Back in the cave in room C2, where the two chief negotiators would spend hours together over the weeks to come, he asked Frost whether he was serious. “Is this what you are doing? How can we continue? I have to go back to the member states who are all going to ask why we are continuing to negotiate?”
An emergency meeting in Lancaster House of the joint committee – tasked with implementing the withdrawal agreement – was called for the following day by the EU’s senior representative, the commission’s Slovakian vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič. “It was the first time we had all 27 member states tuning in, and big Maroš just laid into Gove,” said one attender.
The indignant fury of the Irish government’s representative in the room was crystal clear: it was absolutely unacceptable that London had gone ahead without informing Dublin, she told Gove. “It ruined the relationship – unforgivable,” said one official close to the talks.
Within Frost’s own team there were serious reservations about the move, the details of which had been kept to a tight group at the top.
But Brussels would carry on. “The civil servants on both sides smiled in an embarrassed way at each other and tried to ignore the arguing adults,” said an EU source. “We would continue with eyes wide open as to who we were dealing with”.
On 19 September, the EU formally offered to ditch dynamic alignment on state aid rules forcing Britain to follow Brussels, but Downing Street felt the alternative offer of shared “high principles” with domestic enforcement was a backdoor to the same result.
After Johnson and Von der Leyen spoke on 3 October, the commission president agreed to intensify talks. But the British soon felt they were empty words. Just three days a week were set aside for negotiations, and before a meeting of EU leaders on 15 October a draft summit communique was changed at the prompting of the Dutch and French to ditch a pledge to further intensification. Charles Michel, the European council president, was told it would put Barnier under needless pressure.
Von de Leyen had to leave the summit after a member of her team contracted coronavirus. Barnier took her place in briefing the leaders. They applauded him. “He came out feeling good about it,” said a source. “What was noticeable was what wasn’t said: he was not given instructions. He had the flexibility to make a deal,” an EU official said.
But as Barnier started to talk at an end-of-summit press conference, Frost tweeted that he was “surprised” at the EU’s ditching of the intensification pledge and the insistence that it was the UK that needed to budge. A strange way to negotiate, he said.
Downing Street drops a bomb: ‘Prepare for no deal’
The next day, Johnson said the UK should prepare for no deal. A No 10 spokesman went further: the talks were over. In a call with Barnier, Frost advised the Frenchman not to come to London on the following Monday as planned.
“It was completely manufactured – they would have found any reason to do it,” said an EU official. “It was entirely for domestic consumption. They were always looking for an excuse if things went wrong.”
On a shorter call on the Monday, Frost told Barnier he needed a credible figure to publicly recognise that the UK was a sovereign nation and that both sides needed to compromise. “I have been saying for two years now in two languages that I respect your sovereignty,” Barnier responded.
Behind the scenes, new terms for intensive talks were drafted. Barnier would say the magic words in a speech to the European parliament. The talks were back on.
“We did take it seriously. We didn’t know on Monday the speech would work,” an EU official said. “But when they came back and agreed, it was: right, OK, they want a deal.”
A new round of negotiations was delayed by Barnier’s seven-day isolation after a member of his team contacted coronavirus. When he returned to Brussels on 28 November there followed a fruitful period. The two men would sit for hours in room C2, with their deputies at their side and note-takers behind. They spoke English, but Frost – a scholar of medieval French – would use his counterpart’s language from time to time. There was the constant hum of papers being photocopied and printed.
In an attempt to break the deadlock, Frost proposed a review clause in the trade agreement. It would allow for a reflection point on the whole treaty years down the line, including whether a divergence in standards was distorting trade.
Barnier, now working hand in glove with Von der Leyen’s deputy head of cabinet, Stephanie Riso, 44, did not reject it. But he knew it was unlikely to fly with the member states.
Von der Leyen was applying pressure for a deal, but in a meeting with ambassadors on Friday 28 November, Barnier said there was a danger of allowing the British to “cherrypick”. It set off alarm bells – as Barnier knew it would.
Stick to the mandate, Denmark’s ambassador to the EU, Jonas Bering Liisberg, told Barnier during a difficult early-morning meeting with the capitals’ representatives in Brussels four days later. There were “jitters” in Paris and elsewhere.
Only ambassadors were allowed to attend, to prevent leaks. But news swiftly emerged of the discontent of 11 countries with the biggest trade ties to the UK, nicknamed the “Oceans 11”. Italy was upset over details of a new geographical indications regime that might not sufficiently protect its olive oil, parmesan cheese and Parma ham in the British marketplace. France feared that the EU would be held back from leading on climate change as it looked over the shoulder to British policymaking. The Dutch had concerns over the terms on aviation. Even Romania wanted to see the legal text on the UK’s approach to hauliers.
Barnier returned to London “put on the straight and narrow”, said a diplomatic source.
Late on Thursday evening, he took out a document which, to British eyes, jettisoned all the fruitful discussions about a review clause. The EU would have the right to apply lightning tariffs on British goods in the event of a divergence in standards. “It was basically dynamic alignment – completely against the momentum of the talks,” said an UK official.
Frost went to Downing Street and a decision was made to suspend the talks – with a call later lined up between Von der Leyen and Johnson to clear the air. “They thought it was all going their way – perhaps felt they had missed their moment,” an EU source said.
‘Allons-y’: Von der Leyen takes control
It was at this point, EU sources said, that Von der Leyen took command, with the encouragement of Angela Merkel. “Von der Leyen was driving this from the 13th floor of the Berlaymont from then on.”
The calls between the leaders over the week – addressing each other as Boris and Ursula, rather than prime minister and president – were crucial to finding negotiating space for Frost and Barnier. “Johnson talked through his political problems with some of the EU demands, it was two seasoned politicians going through it and trying to find a fix,” said an EU source on the calls. “This was the Boris Johnson that Angela Merkel met when he first became prime minister – on the detail rather than talking in abstraction,” said a second.
Johnson had constantly through the final weeks sought to get Paris and Berlin involved but they insisted the talks had to go through the commission. Von der Leyen offered the prime minister a consolation dinner in the Berlaymont on a cold Brussels night on 9 December.
Johnson and his team were met by Von der Leyen and Barnier as their convoy of cars swept up to the commission headquarters. As the prime minister emerged from his Mercedes, Von der Leyen ushered him in. “Allons-y,” she said – let’s go.
Preparing for the official photographers, Johnson asked if they were taking off their masks for the cameras. “Yes,” Von der Leyen replied in English, but she added: “Keep distance. Then … you have to put it back on immediately.” “You run a tight ship here, Ursula,” Johnson told her, “and quite right too.”
The subsequent dinner – scallops followed by turbot and pavlova – went no better than the awkward start. Across the dinner table, Johnson and his team threw ideas at Von der Leyen and Riso accompanied by Jens Flosdorff, a former journalist and longtime aide to the commission president.
The response was muted. Nothing came back, said a source. There was a brief moment in the corner of the room at the end of the three-hour dinner, where Johnson and Von der Leyen slipped away from their advisers. “A tête-à-tête – pretty intense,” said a source.
Before returning to London on RAF Voyager, the prime minister joined his team for a drink in the library room at the British ambassador’s residence on Rue Ducale, a grand early 19th-century terraced house overlooking Brussels’ Parc Royal. “I kept throwing pennies in the well and no sounds came back,” Johnson said, cradling a glass of red wine.
“It felt over – it is fucked,” said a source. “There was serious thinking going on then: is this it?”
Johnson wanted another go. While he told broadcasters that a no-deal exit was now “very, very likely” during a visit to Blyth in Northumberland, Frost was preparing to table a fresh proposal on the evolution clause in Brussels on Saturday 12 December.
It was not a new idea, but it was a fleshing out of a solution. Johnson had another call with Von der Leyen on Sunday. There was a crack of light. Von der Leyen said in a subsequent statement that a narrow pathway to a deal was visible.
“For the first time,” Barnier said in a behind-doors meeting of ambassadors on the following Monday, the UK government had “accepted a mechanism of unilateral measures”, such as tariffs, where there were “systemic divergences which distort trade and investment”. But Downing Street expected something back.
“The UK says that because it has made a concession on the level playing field, that we should move on fisheries – but that is not how it works,” Barnier told the ambassadors.
The UK side were incandescent. Frost started to wonder whether Barnier wanted a deal. “He was not being helpful – really there were doubts,” said an UK source.
Barnier, in turn, would repeatedly accuse British officials of being “aggressive” around the table. For the UK side it was a matter of being “direct with no fluff”.
“Things could get really punchy,” admitted one British negotiator. “But then times that were the most punchy were probably the least productive. Like in our table when we were arguing over whose fault it was that fish wasn’t moving. So if I did want to move things on or be the leader, I would step in: ‘Look, we can all fun insulting each other but let’s move on.’”
The final stretch
Progress was being made, however. “When we finished our table we were in this huge room where we’d had some really horrible moments, accusing each other of breaches of trust and that sort of thing,” recalled a British negotiator. “Then at the end we couldn’t celebrate, we couldn’t shake hands, but no one wanted to leave the room. So we just sat there.”
Von der Leyen took to the phones for the final push and instructed her senior aides to also liaise directly with the capitals of the big fishing member states, pushing Barnier aside.
There were constant calls with Johnson. It became a numbers game, splicing and dicing quotas of cod, herring, mackerel and tuna, and fixing a mechanism to reassure French, Belgian, Danish and Dutch fishermen over the future.
On 22 December, Barnier said there was progress. When Denmark said the EU should not go beyond a “final offer” already rejected by Downing Street, he did not offer any words of support. France was tellingly shy of making the same demand.
Germany’s ambassador to the EU, Michael Clauss, concluded the meeting: “I would like to wish you a merry Christmas but we might be back here tomorrow.” It took another day of intense talks on fishing arrangements, this time in the Berlaymont between Frost and Riso, against a backdrop of calls between Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin. But on Christmas Eve morning, Brexit was finally done.