Michel Barnier has warned to EU diplomats they need to “avoid errors” after he steps down in a few weeks’ time.
Speaking at a private event in Brussels on Wednesday evening, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator, who has stayed on as head of the taskforce for relations with the UK, admitted mistakes “have been made but fortunately corrected”. He urged officials to be vigilant in the future.
He also told colleagues to take Britain’s exit from the bloc seriously, warning Brussels is the enemy for many EU citizens.
The former French minister, who is expected to return to domestic politics when he leaves the EU Commission, made similar comments at a Belgian parliamentary hearing.
“Regarding the Irish Protocol,” Barnier told Belgian MPs, mistakes needed to be avoided.
“It is necessary to be very responsible, to be very calm and, in due course, to technically implement this protocol, which will not be renegotiated.”
Yesterday, Michael Gove, who currently manages Britain’s relationship with the EU reached an impasse with his opposite number Maros Sefcovic, but the two men decided to re-affirm their joint commitment to upholding the protocol of concern to Barnier.
Those worries are not unfounded. Last night, the European Research Group re-entered the fray demanding the protocol be scrapped as it disrupts trade within the United Kingdom. The group of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers see ways of facilitating trade with the northern province, but not under the current mechanism crafted by Barnier and jealously guarded by Brussels.
The ERG will now be piling pressure on the government, which has already shown signs it will take a harder line with the EU in swapping out Gove for David Frost who successfully steered Britain’s trade negotiations last year taking a tough stance when facing up against Barnier. Expect fresh clashes between London and Brussels in the near future.
Also on Barnier’s mind is fishing. He explained to the committee that the EU was on the backfoot during last year’s transition period “because we were asking”.
He went onto explain the EU will nevertheless have a strong negotiating hand in five and half years’ time when the new fisheries deal, which only saw EU quotas in British waters reduced by 25%, is renegotiated.
There are “several preventative measures in the agreements to deter the British from shutting off much of their waters,” Barnier said, key amongst them is energy.
“We have introduced a transitional period of five-and-a-half-year of stabilized access by the British to our market.
“After that, every year we will discuss their access to our electricity market with them, just as they will discuss the access of our fishermen to their waters.”
Nigel Farage has previously complimented the man’s negotiating skills. “Mr Barnier, I have to say, I wish you were on our side really, because it is game, set and match to you,” the Brexit legend once told the European Parliament.
But with Barnier soon out the picture and Frost boxing for the British, having gone toe to toe with the Frenchman last year, the playing field is much more even with plenty of scope for EU mistakes.
It’s not as if Brussels hasn’t been making them.