Mayday. Mayday. Barnier in a spin over the Channel

Watching EU Brexit negotiator M. Barnier handle the press these days is neither an uplifting experience, nor is it an agreeable one. But it is, perhaps, an understandable one. Since the departure of Theresa May, British negotiators have been operating inside his OODA Loop.

The OODA Loop has entered into the UK’s political lexicon since the EU referendum. It’s not a new idea nor an especially obscure one. The original concept dates back to a US Air Force officer during the Korean War, Colonel John Boyd, who spotted that better visibility in cockpits led to pilots beating their counterparts in dogfights. The circle of Observe-Orientate-Decide-Act (OODA) was about a quicker reaction time and response, and thus continuously pre-empting the opponent.

One of my few claims to fame during the referendum was to flag this up soon after arriving at Vote Leave. The decision-making process was dragging badly. Something must have stuck as some of the logjams disappeared, and the OODA concept has appeared in a couple of Dominic Cummings blogs since. Since the last UK general election though, while Whitehall was shaken up, for its part the EU’s side has stuck with same old cockpit design that obscures their view. Right now, outmanoeuvred by British negotiators and hampered by their obsolete mandate, they must not know what has hit them.

Their current lot was perhaps inevitable. Precedent suggested that after 2016 they could coast. When past referenda were lost, such as when Ireland’s voters first rejected the Treaty of Nice, the electorate was told to do it right the following year. The vetoing of the Constitutional Treaty by two of the EC’s founding states, France and the Netherlands, led merely to a minor redrafting and it being pushed through as the Lisbon Treaty. This was in turn rejected by Irish voters, and then again rammed through, while promised referenda in a half dozen other states were binned. It is always worth recalling that Barnier lost his job as French foreign minister after losing one of these votes, though the treaty itself rolled on.

As for the troublesome Brits, had not David Cameron set the tone by stating publicly that he wanted to fix the UK’s relationship with the EU through ambitious talks, yet settling for only trivial tweaks? Then there were the negotiators themselves after the 2016 vote: a Whitehall whose senior echelons had formed part of the complicit EU énarque stratosphere; a Downing Street driven by ministers aspiring to minimise rather than change; a loud and well-subsidised white noise that encouraged the Brussels-based to misgauge the wider public mood. With May’s negotiators veering once again like John Major’s infamous “Rolls Royce without a steering wheel”, Team Barnier could just sit back and watch the clock tick down.

That changed once the Boris Government arrived. Rather than mitigating change and trying to reverse-engineer from a customs union and a regulatory union, the strategically simpler pursuit of a free trade settlement meant that Whitehall at a stroke lost its clutter. The cockpit became clear. The OODA Loop became tight.

Barnier’s people have been on the hop ever since. The most embarrassing aspect has been over fisheries, an area where the simple international default suits the UK best. Here, Barnier has been painted into a corner, having linked British surrender to his unilateral demands on fishing rights with the prospect of any trade deal at all. However, fish talks are now due to conclude while trade talks have another five months to run, guaranteeing he will be seen as a poor pilot by his own mandate setters in the Council.

Now, in his 5 June press conference, a bit more oil spurts onto Team Barnier’s cockpit window. The Political Declaration, he says, is legally binding and the UK is breaking it. He conveniently forgets the many occasions his own side have briefed that the PD is non-binding – starting for instance with his telephone call to new-PM Boris Johnson in July 2019, when he initially refused to open up any text other than the Political Declaration precisely because the latter was elastic in its intent.

Or again, consider his take on the reluctance of the UK to include foreign policy and defence as part of the talks. “I do not understand why,” claimed M. Barnier, who understands perfectly well why, for he has been told often enough. That he affects both injury and ignorance is a desperate device, particularly for a self-declared Gaullist, and a mark of being badly outmanoeuvred. The EU won its controversial Nobel Prize for peace. It may have to be re-awarded for fiction.

The EU made a critical mistake in 2016. It was a fatal error to have appointed Barnier as its chief negotiator. The EU would have gotten a much better deal with Frans Timmermans, quite probably to the long-term detriment of Brexiteers.

Timmermans’s appointment now as an honest broker won’t change the pace or route of Brexit. But after the fiascos of recent weeks, it could extract the EU’s negotiating team from a well-fermenting pickle, and leave relations between London and Brussels free from the rancour that will otherwise be the true legacy from Barnier’s myopic flight.

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