Michel Barnier: Next Brexit stage will be 'difficult and demanding'

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
European Commission Chief Negotiator on Brexit Michel Barnier delivers a speech during the annual Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal on November 5, 2019. Photo: Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator on Tuesday warned trade deal talks between the EU and UK will be “difficult and demanding” and told the public to be on alert for a possible no deal Brexit.

Michel Barnier said in a speech on Tuesday: “I know that this negotiation will be difficult and demanding for one reason: the time will be extremely short — 11 months.”

If Parliament passes Boris Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal deal, then the EU and UK will progress onto negotiations about their future trading relationships. However, the transition period during which they can negotiate a deal runs only until December 2020.

Free trade deals typically take many years to negotiate and there are doubts that both sides can reach an agreement in such a short period before the deadline.

Barnier said during a speech at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon on Tuesday that negotiations would also be complicated “because our and the UK and our starting points are not necessarily the same.

READ MORE: UK firms ‘hopeless’ as Brexit spooks customers

“The UK might want to be able to diverge from EU rules in a pick and mix approach by economic sector,” he said. “On our side, the EU will want strong guarantees for a level playing field across the board… The EU will not tolerate unfair competitive advantage.”

“Boris Johnson said he wants a best in class free trade agreement. What does best mean? For us, it means a free trade agreement whose aim is not only economic and financial profit… but is also in the interest of the people and their environment and their living standards.”

‘The risk of a cliff edge remains’

Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator on Brexit, European Commission, on Centre Stage during the opening day of Web Summit 2019 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

As a result of the gap between the two positions, Barnier warned a no deal Brexit in December 2020 is still a real possibility. The withdrawal agreement allows for a further extension of the transition in summer 2020 but it in unclear if Boris Johnson would be willing to pursue this option.

“Summer 2020 in 8 months will already be a moment of truth of how far we have come and whether a further extension will be needed,” Barnier said.

“As long as we have not completed both negotiations with the UK, the risk of a cliff edge remains and we should all remain vigilant and prepare for that possible outcome.”

READ MORE: Edward Snowden: 'It is not data that is being exploited, it’s people'

However, the diplomat said the EU was committed to pursuing a “ambitious” deal and would negotiate “respectfully towards the UK, in full transparency and dialogue.”

“We in the European Commission will be ready to start the negotiation as soon as the UK ratifies the withdrawal agreement,” Barnier said.

“Brexit is a school of patience. Brexit is a school of tenacity. Even when our deal will be ratified, that will not be the end of the story. We need to keep in mind that the orderly withdrawal is a step, it is not a destination.”

‘If we do not act, future will be decided in Washington and Beijing’

As well as addressing future trading relations, Barnier also called for a close strategic partnership between the UK and EU. He highlighted a “need to cooperate against new threats, in particular cyber threats” and called for data sharing agreements.

Barnier warned that without close cooperation, Europe risked falling further behind the US and China in the global standings.

“Today in the 21st century, the US and China are in the lead,” Barnier said. “If we in Europe do not act now, the future of our history, jobs, personal data, and ethical standards will be made in Washington and Beijing.”

Barnier described Brexit as a “lose-lose” proposition and said: “Let me be frank, until now no one — no one —has been able to explain to me the added value of Brexit. Not even Nigel Farage.”

But he said Britain would “remain in any case our friend, our ally, and our partner.”

READ MORE: Huawei chairman: 5G is 'new electricity'

Barnier was speaking on the second day of the Web Summit in Portugal, one of the world’s biggest tech conference. Over 70,000 people are attending the event, which was opened by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden on Monday evening.