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‘Ineffective lobbying and duty free whisky’: Barnier advisor belittles Welsh efforts to influence Brexit

30 Dec 2023 6 minute read
Mark Drakeford, 2nd from the right, and Michel Barnier, 6th from the right

Luke James, Brussels

Efforts by the Welsh and Scottish governments to influence the European Union during Brexit negotiations have been described as “ineffective” by the senior advisor to former EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

EU official Stefaan de Rynck made the assessment of lobbying by devolved governments in his “unvarnished account” of Brexit negotiations, Inside the Deal: How the EU Got Brexit Done.

Former First Minister Carwyn Jones insists the Welsh Government was right to put forward alternatives to a hard Brexit and EU expert Rachel Minto says the meetings were as much about influencing national politics as international relations.

When the Welsh Government found themselves locked out of Whitehall meetings over Brexit negotiations, they took advantage of the open door policy of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team.

Brexit referendum

Ministers held at least 18 meetings in Brussels and Strasbourg between the Brexit referendum and the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, including three between the First Minister and Mr Barnier.

“Barnier frequently met with the Scottish and Welsh first ministers through the negotiations, also after Mark Drakeford replaced Jones,” de Rynck wrote in the book published earlier this year.

“Scotland wanted to stay in the single market and the customs union even if the rest of the UK left. Wales wanted to continue participating in the single market with ‘fair’ but not free movement of EU nationals.

“This lobbying by the devolved entities was always ineffective in terms of influencing Brussels’ positions. There was not much more Barnier could do than listen, take note and recommend the First Ministers to convince Theresa May to change tack.”

De Rynck’s account of the meetings also includes a disparaging comment about a gift given to Barnier by former First Minister Carwyn Jones.

“A few weeks after the kick-off round of talks, Sturgeon was the first in Barnier’s office, followed by Carwyn Jones later in the day who gave Barnier a bottle of Welsh Whisky bought at the duty-free shop at Cardiff airport,” he added.

Handshake between Carwyn Jones, on the left, and Michel Barnier

Jones did indeed present Barnier with a bottle of Welsh whiskey at their first meeting in July 2017, but he said it certainly not was from duty free. He also presented Barnier, who is a keen hiker from the mountainous Savoie region of France, with the ‘Landscape Wales’ book.

“I don’t remember this chap and I wonder about the accuracy of the book because we certainly didn’t fly from Cardiff to Brussels because there was no such flight,” Jones told Nation.Cymru.

“And we certainly didn’t pick him up a bottle of whiskey in duty free. We were a bit more organised than that so I hope the book is better researched than that part of it.”

Barnier held a second meeting with Jones in July 2018 before meeting Mark Drakeford in June 2019.

Row

Drakeford used the visit to Brussels, which came amid growing fears over a no deal Brexit, to call for a referendum over the outcome of negotiations with an option to remain in the EU on the ballot paper.

That sparked a row with the UK Government, who said it would not provide diplomatic support for the visit if the First Minister undermined its Brexit policy.

Responding to the claim that the Welsh Government’s strategy had been ‘ineffective’, Jones told said: “Inevitably, the main negotiations would have been with the UK.

“But I think it was perfectly fair for both Scotland and Wales to look at ideas because at that time everyone was looking at how to make things work.

“There didn’t seem to be many ideas coming out of Whitehall at the time. So, it was perfectly right for us to go and suggest ideas to the EU.

“I never got the impression that it was a case of ‘we’ve got to have this meeting so let’s get on with it’. They wouldn’t have had the meeting with us if they didn’t think we had something to say. That’s just the way things work in that world.”

“Clearly the European Commission thought our view was worth listening to because they did meet us. They could easily have said the discussion has got to be between the UK and EU there’s nothing much we can help you with.”

Diverging views

Jones said that the diverging views presented to the Commission by the Welsh and Scottish governments were an inevitable result of the referendum result.

“We couldn’t really be seen by the Welsh public as trying to undo Brexit,” he said. “We had to accept the result and Scotland didn’t have that handicap that we had in Wales.”

The Welsh Government was under “no illusions” about the extent to which it could influence EU policy but had to be seen to try by voters at home, according to Dr Rachel Minto of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre.

She said: “The European Union is a club of Member States and the Welsh Government is very aware of that. There was a dual purpose to their activity over in Brussels. One was to highlight that the UK Government didn’t hold a ‘monopoly of perspectives’ on Brexit in the UK – so highlighting that there were different voices, including governmental voices, in the UK.

“There must also have been a certain amount of playing to a domestic audience as well, given that the European relationship is a really important one for the Welsh Government. I think there would have been questions asked at home had the Welsh Government not tried to seek an audience with Michel Barnier.

“My sense is that they were under no illusions about the extent to which they would be able to influence the European Union given that ultimately it was the UK Government as the Member State government sitting around the Council table – or not in the case of Brexit.”

Jones said he wants to see a “rapprochement” between the UK and the EU under a future Labour government but said it was too early to re-open a serious debate about membership.

“We need to make sure that we have a friendly relationship with the EU and that as many barriers as possible are broken down while respecting the result,” he added.

“I don’t think it’s sensible to say what we need to do now is start looking at ways of joining. Any impression of going behind the referendum result will be poorly received by the electorate.

“I think people want to be part of Horizon and Erasmus. But the underlying issues which caused Brexit are still there and I don’t think the time is anywhere close to even talking about having a different relationship with the EU.”


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Paul ap Gareth
Paul ap Gareth
2 months ago

This seems to be the key phrase to take away from the article:
“When the Welsh Government found themselves locked out of Whitehall meetings over Brexit negotiations”

London decided what Brexit meant without consulting Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. We all had to take what we were given by our colonial overlords.

Jeff
Jeff
2 months ago
Reply to  Paul ap Gareth

Looks more like “have removed” now, rather than given.

CapM
CapM
2 months ago

“Wales wanted to continue participating in the single market with ‘fair’ but not free movement of EU nationals.” If this is an accurate account of what the Labour government position was at the talks then as – The single market seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people, known collectively as the “four freedoms”. It indicates that the Welsh government was either as ignorant of what the EU is as the Tory government was or like that government the Labour government also believed in unicorns. “We couldn’t really be seen by the Welsh public as trying to… Read more »

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