The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, have warned that a united bloc – “team 27” – will give the UK a stark challenge in the next phase of Brexit negotiations.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Dublin on Monday, both men said EU solidarity would continue to protect members’ interests in “very challenging” talks with London over a trade deal which are supposed to conclude by the end of this year.
The veiled warning came as Downing Street prepared to celebrate the UK’s departure from the EU on Friday.
“We’ll say goodbye to an old friend embarking on an adventure,” said Varadkar. “We hope it works out for them. But if it does not, there will always be a seat kept for them at the table.”
Barnier flagged the risk of economic disruption if negotiators fail to clinch a deal. “If we have no agreement, it will not be business as usual and the status quo, we have to face the risk of a cliff edge, in particular for trade.”
The show of solidarity followed combative comments earlier by Varadkar in a BBC interview in which he said the EU was likely to have the upper hand against London and could use leverage over the financial industry to extract concessions on fishing.
Barnier, who is due to deliver a speech in Belfast later on Monday, said the united front that delivered a withdrawal agreement acceptable to Brussels, Dublin and other members would continue in Brexit’s next phase. “Brexit really showed, we are all part of a family. Brexit will not go away. We have important work ahead of us.”
The EU’s chief negotiator said the bloc would closely monitor implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol – another veiled warning to Downing Street that there will need to be checks on goods crossing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Varadkar, who has sought to remind Irish voters about Brexit in an uphill election campaign for his ruling Fine Gael party, said Ireland wished to remain friends with Britain but would remain part of “team EU”.
In the BBC interview the taoiseach warned Boris Johnson that divergence from Brussels standards would make an agreement “a lot harder” and made a blunt reminder about the disparity in negotiating power.
“The reality of situation is that the European Union is a union of 27 member states – the UK is only one country. And we have a population and a market of 450 million people. The UK, it’s about 60 million. So if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team? So long as we’re united.”
Varadkar also warned against any UK attempt to get a piecemeal deal with the EU. “When I hear people talk about piecemeal, it sounds a bit like cake and eat. That isn’t something that will fly in Europe.”
Reaching a permanent trade deal by the end of the year was going to be difficult so an extension to the post-31 January transition period remained possible, he said, despite Downing Street ruling that out. “But it’s going to be pretty tough over the next few months … we need to get down to business very quickly trying to get that trade deal.”
Varadkar said the UK may fail to get a trade deal giving its banks access to the EU’s financial services market unless it agrees to let EU boats carry on fishing in British waters.
A No 10 spokesman said access to Britain’s waters for EU fishing boats would be the subject of negotiations.
In remarks possibly aimed at Irish voters, who have backed the government’s tough stance in Brexit talks, Varadkar accused the UK of misreading the first phase of Brexit in part because many people in Westminster and Britain “don’t understand Ireland”.