Brexit, a long and difficult separation

Who would have imagined, when the results of the British referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) fell on a pale morning in June 2016, that it would take four and a half years for London and Brussels to settle their divorce? That Europeans and the British would end up agreeing in extremis, on December 24, on their post-Brexit “future relationship”, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic? Surprises, psychodramas and missed deadlines abounded during these negotiations.

In Brussels, the European institutions took time to mourn the United Kingdom, a difficult partner, but one of the first rank since 1973. In London, it took three prime ministers to overcome the divorce and, over the years, the position of 10 Downing Street has continued to harden, going from a sweet Brexit to a clean break. A look back at this extraordinary negotiation, which ended political careers, revealed personalities, generated its share of bitterness and division, and mobilized so much energy on both sides of the Channel.

  • Chapter 1: After the shock, Brussels organizes itself, London procrastinates

July 23, 2016. François Hollande invited Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, to dinner at the Elysée. The two leaders appreciate each other, even if the first is a socialist when the second is a Christian Democrat. The former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, 61, is not in good shape, he is an injured man, he needs to be reassured, and this evening is timely.

A month earlier, on June 23, the British voted 51.9% for Brexit and, for this enthusiast of the European thing, it is a personal disaster. But it is also, he well knows, a cover-up – some blame him for the outcome of the referendum. At the table of the Twenty-Seven, Mr. Juncker does not only have friends. And member states want to have a hand in the future divorce negotiation with London, which will be crucial for the future of the EU.

The Luxembourger does not have an easy character, but it is a political end. That evening, he proposed to François Hollande to appoint Michel Barnier as head of the future unit responsible for negotiations with London. The Gaullist knows the British well, having negotiated with them when he was European commissioner for the internal market, in charge of regulating the banking system, after the 2008 crisis. The Frenchman was several times minister (agriculture, foreign affairs) and commissioner, he quoted heads of state. Capitals will appreciate it, thinks Mr Juncker, and the Commission will be able to keep control over the future negotiation. The Luxembourger was right, Paris supported him, and Michel Barnier was appointed on July 27, 2016.

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