Sylvie Bermann was the French ambassador to the UK during Brexit. She spent an evening with our Writer at Large Neil Mackay in Glasgow discussing Scottish independence, the UK leaving Europe, what she really thinks of Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, and the man she got to know while posted to Moscow: Vladimir Putin

Sylvie Bermann clearly relishes her newfound liberty. Throughout her career, as one of the world’s leading diplomats, she’s been a model of tight-lipped reserve. Now, though, the former French ambassador to Britain at the time of Brexit is letting the world know precisely what she thinks about Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, the UK’s decision to leave the EU, Nicola Sturgeon, and Scottish independence.

I spent last Sunday with Bermann, hosting her at Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival where she unveiled her new book, Au Revoir Britannia, an account of the Brexit years from a French perspective.

Prior to her UK posting, Bermann was French ambassador to China. After London, she was French ambassador to Russia between 2017 and 2019, where she got to know Vladimir Putin. Bermann spoke at length to The Herald on Sunday both before, during and after her Glasgow appearance, and subsequently corresponded providing additional insight into her take on world events.

Scotland and Europe

HOW would the EU react to an independent Scotland wanting to join? “We’ll welcome it,” Bermann said. “It was more difficult during the referendum on independence because of the reaction of Spain [due to the issue of Catalan independence]. So at that time maybe it wouldn’t have been so popular but I think the situation has changed because there’s been Brexit.”

As Scotland would be joining the EU as a new country, Bermann said: “Probably there would be some negotiation, but [Scotland joining the EU] would be good for Europe. There’s no reason why if there’s this referendum which is accepted that we shouldn’t want to have Scotland – we’ll be very happy.”

Would joining be an easy process? “The problem – but it’s your problem not the problem of the EU – is the pound versus the euro. The euro isn’t an obligation, of course, but if you keep the pound, what’s your relationship with the UK?

“That may put pressure on Scotland. It’s the main problem.”

Bermann added “there are countries which don’t use the euro for the time being … It doesn’t mean that Scotland would have necessarily to adopt the euro but there should be agreement with the Bank of England if Scotland keeps the pound.”

She said: “There would be some other negotiations but they should be quicker … some procedural issue concerning the ‘acquis communautaire’. But it shouldn’t be too problematic.”

“Acquis communautaire” means “the body of European Union laws”.

Would independence create an intractable border problem as Brexit did in Northern Ireland? “Intractable, I don’t know,” Bermann said, “but if you’re a member of the EU, then there’s a new border with England … It’s just to protect the common market, it’s not punishment.” Would the Tory Party be hostile to an independent Scotland? “It depends on what kind of Tories you’re referring to. The actual Cabinet – they probably won’t be very friendly.”

What about the point made by unionist parties that there is little difference between Britain leaving Europe and Scotland leaving the UK? “It’s a different situation … Scots wanted to remain in the EU and that’s one of the reasons why you didn’t vote for independence in 2014, and so now since the UK left the EU the situation is totally different. Scotland voted for remaining and so you’re probably still furious.”


INDEPENDENCE, Bermann said, “is a Sword of Damocles for the British, for London”, adding: “It could happen, I don’t know, it depends on the population here. I understand it’s 50-50 now, so it’s impossible to organise a referendum in those circumstances, and you can’t lose a new referendum.”

Bermann said there have been discussions “that Ireland will be first” – that Irish unity will happen before Scottish independence. “I’m not reading the runes, but that’s a possibility.” She said the UK could be left as “a little England, adding: “That’s very risky. I remember a Brexiter told me ‘well, we don’t care, we’ve always had problems with Northern Ireland or even Scotland’.”

Brexit, Bermann said, is down to “English nationalism … It was about identity, and that’s something which is dangerous now … Obsession for identity leads to intolerance, xenophobia and racism. This identity question exists in many countries but the question of English identity was very strong during the campaign.”

There is no longer any possibility of a federal Europe. “This is over – maybe 10 years ago some people expected to have a more federal Europe. Now they realise it’s not possible, maybe not desirable.” The French want to be French, and the Germans German, she said. “To be European doesn’t prevent us being French or German, but a federal Europe isn’t our path and there’s lessons learned from Brexit that maybe Europe should be more flexible.”

Does a door remain open to Britain re-entering one day? Bermann notes that French president Emmanuel Macron spoke recently about a European “confederation, he referred to it as a European political community for new possible candidates, including Ukraine”. Macron also mentioned “the possibility for those who left to rejoin”.

Scotland and Nato

CAN the SNP join Nato but also getting rid of Trident? Highlighting the current threat from Russia and Nato’s revived role, Bermann said: “I don’t know if there’s going to be an evolution or new thinking in the SNP but it’s really a new situation so we have to consider that.”

She added: “You don’t need to be a member of Nato to be a member of the EU.” Scotland, she said, “may feel better protected” in Nato, but on the issue of Trident removal complicating Nato membership, Bermann pointed out: “What’s interesting is that in the EU treaty you’ve article 42.7, which is even stronger than Article 5 [of the Nato treaty enshrining the ‘one for all’ principle]. Of course, you wouldn’t have the means of the Americans but at least there’s an obligation to react with all possible means by other members states.”

She added: “It is not necessary to have nuclear submarines to be a member of Nato. But, anyway, I guess that the UK would want to move Trident in case of independence.”


WHAT happens now that Britain is threatening to renege on the Brexit treaty it negotiated with Europe, over the Northern Ireland protocol, which risks undermining the peace process?

“Where we’re going to from here it’s very difficult to know. Not only Boris Johnson but all those who negotiated Brexit said it was a ‘fantastic agreement’. And so the year afterwards they say it’s not implementable and we won’t abide

by it.”

Johnson was warned “all the time”, Bermann added, “of the consequences” of leaving Europe and that there would “be borders” relating to Ireland.

Macron, Bermann said, has been very “vocal” in his criticism of Johnson. “Macron is very pro-Europe,” she explained. “But beyond that he considers that treaties should be fully implemented. It is a question of trust. Nobody forced Johnson to sign this treaty. [He not only] negotiated and signed it but boasted about this ‘fantastic agreement’. The UK is now, as it wanted, a third state and the EU needs to protect its domestic market. Other EU members and the Americans share this position.”

She added: “The British are always saying that there’s a ‘special relationship’ between between the UK and US, but in fact the special relationship is between the US and Ireland. [The special relationship] is something which is seen from London, it’s not seen from the US. There’s a delusion about the way the UK is perceived. And what’s very strange now. I looked at the Integrated Review, the strategy towards the world of so-called ‘Global Britain’ – there’s nothing about the EU. It’s as if it doesn’t exist at all. Well, we are neighbours.

“I remember during Brexit it was said ‘we’re leaving the EU, not Europe’. If you aren’t leaving Europe then you need to have at least normal relationships with your neighbours – that’s not what happened. For the time being the Europeans have other priorities, but if there’s a breach of confidence or a breach concerning the Northern Ireland protocol, that will be said clearly by European institutions.”

Bermann noted that it “has already been said” in America that any trade deal with Britain would be jeopardised if the Good Friday Agreement was put at risk”. She said: “I think there won’t be this ‘fantastic agreement’ if they don’t respect their word on Northern Ireland”. From the EU’s perspective, “if decisions which are a breach of the treaty are taken there will be a reaction”.

She also pointed to reports that “in Northern Ireland they’re doing better than in the UK economically” as Ulster remains aligned to EU rules.

On the question of whether there are fears for peace, she said: “There is a risk of rising tensions.”

Bermann recalls Brexiters telling her they didn’t believe the UK would vote leave. “Since then,” she added, “they don’t know what to do.” Theresa May “triggered Article 50” – to withdraw from the EU – “without a strategy, and even Boris Johnson, he wanted to be Prime Minister, that was his only interest. I remember Amber Rudd [former Tory Cabinet minister] saying … about the economic consequences of Brexit, ‘there’s one figure that interests Johnson and this is Number 10’. That was right. And so nobody knew what Brexit would mean”.

Bermann still can’t believe that Britain gave up assets such as the student Erasmus programme and refused to accept co-operation on security.

She also notes “the irony” of British citizens now in “a different queue” from “EU neighbours” while travelling in Europe, and waiting alongside citizens from “very faraway countries” like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. “It’s funny, it’s very telling. It’s another thing that’s so irrational against the EU, everything which is European is just bad. So, I think it needs some time to rebuild the relationship with Europe.”

Did Britain become a laughing stock? “Yes, that’s true because it was a self-inflicted wound, a kind of suicide.”

Bermann recalls arriving in “cosmopolitan” London, and French “ministers went to London for some recipes for success and then suddenly after that there’s this suicidal decision”.

Brexit, Bermann says, could have gone the other way. “With a better remain campaign it could have been won.”

Boris Johnson

BERMANN got to know Johnson. So what’s he like as a man? He is, she makes clear, “an unrepentant liar”. But she also finds him “funny [and] very friendly”. The first time they met, when Johnson was London mayor, was at a breakfast meeting when he gave a speech referring to ancient Athens and Sparta. He made the point that “Athens – which was more open and including to foreigners – is still alive, and Sparta disappeared. So he didn’t appear at that time to be anti-immigration.”

The relationship between Johnson and Macron “became very sour. Macron is a real European and he doesn’t accept when you don’t respect your word”. However, she explains that unless there’s a crisis – as there is now over Northern Ireland – “nobody is talking about Brexit in Europe or the relationship with the UK, or even the UK”. Johnson’s boasts about speeding up vaccines during Covid as Britain had left the EU were untrue, Bermann says. The Brexit treaty only “came fully into force on January 1, 2021. Until then, the UK was still under EU rules and the vaccine campaign started in December … EU members were slower in the beginning because they decided a common order to be sure that smaller countries would also have access to vaccines. In the end … the EU was exporting a lot to developing countries and became ‘the pharmacy of the world’. The death toll in the UK was much higher than in EU countries”.

The death toll is “probably the responsibility of Boris Johnson”. Johnson entering hospitals and shaking hands with people during Covid was a symbol of “British exceptionalism as he thought it couldn’t happen to such a great country”.

Second world war

Bermann also pointed to “British exceptionalism” over the Second World War. “We’re grateful to all those British soldiers who went to France, but it’s not the UK alone which liberated Europe, but that’s the way of thinking – that they know better, do better.”

Britain remains hung up on Empire, Bermann feels. Before she went to Russia, some colleagues told her: “There’s one thing in common between the UK and Russia – they think they’re the only ones to win the war … that Russia liberated Europe. It’s the same in the UK. It’s based in the past and I don’t understand why there’s so much hatred towards the Germans since the UK wasn’t occupied. We were occupied and there’s not this reaction.”

She recalls hearing MPs talking about Europe as “the Fourth Reich” and calling the French “cowards”, adding: “It’s a question of the past, not of the future or even the present.”

Putin & Ukraine

BERMANN has met Putin “many times” with Macron, for long “tête-à-têtes”. At one point, she co-ordinated political discussions around reintegrating the Donbas into Ukraine. Back during meetings in 2019, Putin “was in a negotiation mood”.

She believes Putin changed during pandemic. “He was totally isolated and afraid of Covid. He didn’t go out, and he stopped talking with liberals, as he had contact with some liberals who say now it’s impossible to talk to him.”

Before Covid “he was a tough guy, but you could negotiate with him. It’s someone who’s totally different now”. She pointed to Putin staging meetings where he sits at one side of a huge table, or where he humiliated his spy chief on television. “That was terrible and he seemed to be in state of rage. He’s not insane but he’s obsessional about Ukraine and Nato … Psychiatrists maybe wouldn’t say paranoia but it’s a kind of paranoid mind I think. I wouldn’t say he’s a new Hitler, he’s different, but he’s dangerous and we have to face him, but not humiliate him, like we humiliated the Germans in 1918, because he’ll come back even more dangerous.”

She adds: “Russia won’t disappear. It will remain as the largest country in the world, a permanent member of the security council with nuclear armaments. The EU and Nato countries will continue to share a long border [with] Russia. It would be dangerous to completely isolate Russia because there will be an enhanced feeling of [a] besieged fortress and desire for revenge. We must find a modus vivendi and establish new security rules. If Ukraine confirms its proposal of neutrality it has to be guaranteed internationally and it is not possible without negotiations with Moscow.”

Although she says she “understands” Putin’s view of Nato, the big problem, however, is negotiating with a leader “who lied”. She cautioned against a policy of full reunification of Ukraine – particularly for Crimea as it’s “now a part of Russia” – despite the war going badly for Putin. With Putin having already “lost so much”, it’s unlikely that negotiations would succeed if he “doesn’t get anything. That’s not a moral position – it’s realism”.

Western military campaigns also fuelled Putin’s ambitions. “Russia, as well as France and Germany, campaigned against an illegal war in Iraq which has never been approved by the UN Security Council. The country was bombed, there were civilian casualties, but no weapons of mass destruction. In Kosovo also Nato bombed Serbia without authorisation by the security council. Russia resented it … Putin always refers to those examples as a breach of international law and a policy of double standards by the West.”

Would Putin use nuclear weapons? She doesn’t think so. “He’s not crazy, he cares about Russia.” But the invasion “was the worst political gamble”.

FM’s leaked memo

IN contrast to Johnson, Bermann refers to Nicola Sturgeon as “a woman of exceptional character”. Bermann was caught up in a row in 2015 when it was reported that a leaked memo claimed Sturgeon had told Bermann that she would prefer David Cameron to win the General Election over Labour, as that would help the SNP. For the first time, Bermann is now able to tell exactly what happened. “The responsibility wasn’t the press but someone in the British Government who leaked that deliberately and it was not true.”

Sturgeon “didn’t say” what was reported, Bermann explains. “I was asking everyone when I was travelling and meeting people ‘who do you think will win’. And she said she thought Cameron will win. She never said she wanted Cameron to win.”

A French official in Edinburgh relayed the conversation inaccurately to British Government officials in Scotland. “It was a mistake of interpretation. I was furious.” It was later established that a member of staff for the former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael leaked the story, after Carmichael gave the go-ahead.