‘Always a risk’ of states quitting EU if concerns not addressed – Barnier

Former chief Brexit negotiator sees no way to accept ‘any renegotiation’ of NI protocol

Michel Barnier: ‘There is lessons to draw from the Brexit. Leaving the EU is very serious. So we have to understand the reasons; obviously they are domestic and very British reasons.’ Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AP

Michel Barnier: ‘There is lessons to draw from the Brexit. Leaving the EU is very serious. So we have to understand the reasons; obviously they are domestic and very British reasons.’ Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AP

 

There is “always a risk” of more EU member states leaving the bloc if citizen concerns are not addressed, former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has warned.

“Brexit was unlikely even for [UK Independence Party leader Nigel] Farage and some others at the beginning of this campaign, but it happened, so we have to be very careful,” he said.

Mr Barnier led protracted talks with the UK over the specific terms under which it would eventually depart the EU, and which ultimately led to the controversial Northern Ireland protocol.

In a new book, and in an interview on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme on Tuesday, Mr Barnier set out what he feels are ongoing threats to the bloc.

“There is lessons to draw from the Brexit,” he said. “Leaving the EU is very serious. So we have to understand the reasons; obviously they are domestic and very British reasons. But there are also common reasons in some regions: social anger, popular feeling… and we have to understand, to listen and to answer.

“I think the EU begin to answer by some change in some policy, external policy, trade policy, industrial policy, possibly in immigration also.”

The Brexit process, following the referendum result in 2016, cast a spotlight on the ability of member states to maintain solidarity and stave off any groundswell in support for other “exits” elsewhere.

That unity came into sharp focus during a meeting between Mr Barnier and then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar in 2019, during which the chief negotiator stressed the importance of the single market and said that in order to protect it there must either be a border on the island of Ireland, around it or possibly there was the “risk” of having to exclude Ireland itself from the single market.

“The option was on the table, but the option we choose to support – the 27 member states with Ireland – in solidarity with Ireland, was to find a solution to control the goods somewhere around the island,” he said.

Played down

Mr Barnier had initially played down that toxic last option, deeming it “impossible to exclude one member state because of the Brexit”.

However, reports during the summer revealed a previous emergency plan under consideration by EU officials in which goods leaving Ireland for the EU could face checks.

Asked whether that prospect might re-emerge, Mr Barnier insisted the protocol was the solution and must be respected.

“The protocol is not the problem so we have to be clear and firm with the Brits,” he said. “There is a margin, there is room for working on pragmatic… solutions to address some concerns of the Brits. But there is no way in my view to accept any renegotiation of this protocol.”