Toby Neal: What happens behind Brussels’ closed doors?

Read the latest column from Toby Neal.

Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier
Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier was running a bit late.

He’d been held up at the border by Brexit delays caused by convoys of journalists heading to the border to report on Brexit delays.

But despite striding briskly down the corridor known as the Hall of Delors at the EU headquarters in Brussels, he was still able to find a moment to steal a glance at the portraits adorning the walls. From floor to ceiling was Charles de Gaulle, for he was indeed a tall man, taller still than Michel.

Ted Heath, in a fine frame finished in gold leaf. Helmut Kohl, and Margaret Thatcher depicted holding half a loaf, a long-forgotten allusion by a painter using mischievous artistic licence.

His eye was caught by d’Estaing, Helmut Schmidt, and John Major (portrayed, unlike the others, in greyscale). Further down Tony Blair, with a smile so wide that from a distance it could almost be a painting of the Cheshire Cat.

One gap on the wall showed the outline of where a large portrait had once hung, but had been removed. David Cameron’s image was in “storage,” according to EU officials.

There was a striking depiction of Theresa May, holding a bowl of cherries and with glasses and moustache crudely added to her features. This was not the work of some vandal, but an inspired thematic touch by an artist taking the lead from the EU’s casual discourtesy and disrespect of her.

Michel strode into the large room to which he had been summoned to receive an award from the EU honours committee in recognition of his Brexit negotiations.

These EU gongs are rare and cherished, and there is a 57-strong panel on the EU payroll to make sure they get the decision right. Currently in the chair is Donald Tusk, himself one of the EU’s heroes of the Brexit process.

As Michel marched to the table, all stood for the loyal toast.

“The Project!” they chanted in unison, and sipped from a glass of Chablis. Premier Cru, not Grand Cru, Michel noted with some alarm.


“Bonjour, Monsieur Barnier,” said Donald in a cold and mirthless greeting, his gold braid and epaulettes glinting in the winter sun streaming through the brutalist office windows.

“We have been considering how to recognise your efforts in the Brexit negotiations. Which, I shall not need to remind you, took four years. FOUR YEARS!”

Michel gulped. The EU had strung out the Canada deal for seven years. Even David Cameron and George Osborne had spoken of a trade deal taking 10 years.

“The Brits were in a bit of a rush,” he explained weakly.

Tusk affected to sift through a huge pile of papers on the desk in front of him.

“There are two awards which we have been considering,” he said.

“The first is an honorary command in the new European Union Army.”

Michel’s heart sank. The only logical role for such an army would be peacekeeping duties in the Ukraine. Yes – he was being sent to the Russian Front!

“And the second is the Order of the Tweaked Lion’s Tail.”

That was the one. The EU’s highest award of all. The only previous holder had been de Gaulle himself.

“We’ve been going through the details of the agreement,” said Tusk.

“That Oxford study predicted 700,000 lost British jobs. But the other day the United Kingdom’s Office of Budget Responsibility (at this point other committee members suppressed a snigger at the very name) predicted only 300,000.”


Tusk looked over his glasses at Michel.

“Monsieur Barnier, you promised at the start of these talks to teach the British a lesson. So can you explain how it is that you have created at least 400,000 British jobs?”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure they will feel the pain,” assured Michel.

“And Monsieur Barnier, has it escaped your notice that your deal has even been supported by the British ERG, a deadly ideological enemy of the EU?”

“Nobody takes them seriously,” responded Michel.

There was a pregnant silence. Donald Tusk gazed out of the window and stroked the goatee beard he has grown in the mistaken belief that it would make him look like a great thinker, and not a political pygmy given a platform.

“What are we to do?” he asked in the weary manner of a sinister B-movie interrogator.

“Well, Monsieur Barnier, the public has been voting...”

At this, relief flooded through Michel. Ha, ha. This was the EU! Now he knew it was all a wind-up after all. Tusk, out of his bad cop characterisation, broke out into a broad smile.

“Congratulations! I thought we had you there!” he beamed. “What gave it away?”

“It was when you said the public had been voting.”

Michel stood proudly to attention as Donald pinned the much-coveted Order of the Tweaked Lion’s Tail to his chest. There followed much slapping of backs, downing of Chablis Premier Cru, and filling in of expenses forms before they all stood, rather unsteadily by now, for one final celebration toast.

“The Project!” declared Donald. “The Project!” echoed the rest.

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