The European Union’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Wednesday (31 March) the reality of Britain’s decision to leave the bloc was only now being felt, years after the British 2016 referendum on membership.
Listing the changes that Brexit has brought since 1 January, when Britain ended a transition out of the bloc, Barnier said trade barriers, limits on citizens’ movement and work visas were inevitable.
“For many people the real consequences of the referendum are only now starting to sink in,” Barnier told an event in Switzerland via video link from Paris. “The reality, which has become clear for all to see, is that Brexit means recreating trade barriers that had not existed for 47 years,” he said.
Exports of food and drink from Britain to the EU plunged by 75.5% in January, Britain’s Food and Drink Federation has said, attributing much of the fall to post-Brexit barriers.
The British government says UK-EU trade has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and problems with companies adapting to the new customs rules, which it expects to improve with time.
Barnier also underlined that British and European citizens no longer enjoy free movement in each other’s territories, highlighting the need for musicians to obtain paperwork for work permits and their equipment in the EU and in Britain.
He also said Brexit was a lesson for the EU, which he said must show its 450 million citizens that the 27-state bloc benefited all, and was not the distant, uncaring bureaucracy it is often portrayed to be by supporters of Brexit.
Barnier defended his record of negotiating the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement signed in January 2020 and the ensuing trade deal clinched on 24 December 2020, although he questioned whether he and Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost really understood one another.
“We managed to conclude an agreement (on trade), though I am still not entirely sure we understood each other all the time,” Barnier said, putting it down to “a certain view on Europe and sharing national sovereignty”.
Frost was seen as the architect of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “hard Brexit” strategy to leave the bloc with a limited trade deal. Barnier, a French conservative former minister and European Commissioner, committed most of his political life to the deeper integration of European states.
Wednesday was Barnier’s last day with the Commission where he has served under four successive Presidents.
Cher @MichelBarnier, merci pour votre engagement exceptionnel tout au long de ces négociations avec le Royaume-Uni, d’abord sur l’accord de retrait, puis l’accord de commerce et de coopération.
L’Union européenne vous doit beaucoup. https://t.co/u5ytMfm4NF
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) March 31, 2021
Last Ferbuary Barnier announced he was setting up a political faction under the name “Patriot and European”, fuelling rumours that he was mulling a possible bid in next year’s presidential election.