Brexit: Behind Closed Doors (BBC Four) offered a rare, if excruciating, opportunity to observe the course of the Brexit negotiations from Europe’s point of view –
Filmmaker Lode Desmet’s two-part film Brexit: Behind Closed Doors (BBC Four) offered a rare, if excruciating, opportunity to observe the course of the Brexit negotiations from Europe’s point of view. It allowed the viewer to walk a mile in the EU’s shoes or, at any rate, those of Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister appointed chief Brexit coordinator on behalf of the European Parliament.
Desmet trailed around after Verhofstadt for two years, filming meetings of the Brexit steering group he chaired (not to be confused with those run by the European Council and the European Commission or the actual EU negotiating team led by Michel Barnier) as they experienced, at second hand, the ups and – mostly – downs of David Davis and Theresa May’s efforts to extricate the UK from the EU.
From this European perspective, confusion and incompetence looked to be the UK’s chief negotiating strategy, with Barnier able to report privately to Verhofstadt after the opening round of talks that poor preparation on the part of the UK team had allowed the EU “to set both the tone and the agenda”.
In this episode, never at any time in the long months that followed did the Europeans look to be anything other than in total control. From the high ground of 27-nation unity, they looked down on a British government that couldn’t even unify itself and, despite the high stakes, they were frequently moved to derisive laughter. As they saw it, they had no need to out-negotiate Britain – the British government was doing too good a job of that itself.
For some viewers this will have provoked outrage: sniffy Europeans scoffing at the chaos of British politics, blithely refusing to budge on British demands. Others will have seen it as sad, painful and humiliating, an inevitable consequence of leaving and not being prepared to play the EU at its own game.
Nevertheless, this was a well-made, atmospheric documentary that perfectly reflected the bafflement – and sense of complexity – with which Britain’s decision to leave the EU is so often met with in Europe. Last night’s edition closed as Verhofstadt’s team reacted with exasperation, scorn and expletive-laden disbelief as, at the 11th hour, the Democratic Unionist Party torpedoed the withdrawal dealthat Mrs May went to Brussels to sign in December 2017.
Things had seemed relatively sane up to that point. We all have an idea how they will respond in tonight’s concluding part, covering the year-and-a-half of political madness that followed.