‘A spirit of goodwill’: Michel Barnier praises Northern Ireland Brexit plan

<span>Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images

The EU’s former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has praised the agreement on Northern Ireland between the union and the British government as a positive step that turns a page in relations between the two sides.

In an interview with the Guardian, the veteran French politician said the Windsor framework agreement signed by Rishi Sunak and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, last month, “operationalised” the Northern Ireland protocol he had negotiated with the British government in 2019. “There was a spirit of goodwill for the first time in three years, to find solutions that are concrete, operational and realistic.”

Boris Johnson, who agreed the protocol in 2019, had shown the “will” to find an agreement, but Barnier “immediately lost confidence” in the then British prime minister less than a year later, when his government published a bill that empowered ministers to unilaterally rewrite the Brexit agreement, a breach of international law. “It wasn’t goodwill, it was bad faith, because they signed this [Brexit withdrawal] agreement and there were no surprises in it,” Barnier said.

Sunak’s “new attitude” that was “much more responsible” opened the door to better relations with the EU, Barnier said, by dropping similar unilateral threats, notably the Northern Ireland bill. “This opens a new page, it removes the sword of Damocles above our heads of the non-application of the Irish protocol. We now have the conditions to look forward,” Barnier said, evoking cooperation on Ukraine, defence and the climate crisis.

In a separate interview, a former senior adviser to Barnier, Georg Riekeles, echoed the idea the EU lacked a counterpart it could trust under Sunak’s two predecessors. “Boris Johnson represented so much this zero-sum game approach to international relations … He represented Trumpian politics for the EU and what does it mean if you make a deal with the guy who would champion this kind of politics?”

Ahead of a House of Commons vote on Wednesday, Barnier said he expected the Windsor protocol to come into force, despite the Democratic Unionist party’s opposition. He was speaking before it emerged that hardline Conservative backbenchers had also rejected the plan, although the Eurosceptic faction is less influential than it was during Theresa May’s premiership.

Barnier rejected suggestions he could have made similar concessions to May, such as the flexibilities on state aid and VAT that have been granted to Sunak. He said there was not enough time to finalise such details during the earlier negotiation. “My mandate was not to find all technical solutions immediately. It was to create the framework and we did this with the Irish protocol.”

British officials may question this claim. Even EU officials have noted that the commission has used a little noticed clause in the Brexit withdrawal agreement intended “to correct errors” and “address omissions and other deficiencies” in a maximalist way, probably not envisaged by Barnier’s team.

The commission had gone to “the limit” of flexibilities on state aid and VAT, Barnier said, but he did not see difficulties if both sides acted in good faith, adding that any attempt by the British to pursue a policy of “dumping” (unfair competition) would cause problems.

He sounded a cautious note on the Stormont brake, which allows the British government to veto changes to EU laws in Northern Ireland, after a decision by 30 members of the Belfast assembly. “We will judge in time how this agreement is used. I hope it will be in the interest of both parties.”

Meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, EU affairs ministers from the 27 member states approved key parts of the Windsor deal, including the Stormont brake, as well as changes to customs, VAT and state aid.

The former French foreign minister, who aspired to become the centre-right’s presidential candidate in 2021, played down hopes of an imminent deal between the EU and UK to manage asylum seekers crossing the Channel. “The first step has to be for the Europeans to construct a true migration and visa policy at 27. If the 27 agree then they can discuss with the British.”

The EU has been deadlocked in discussions on reforming migration policy ever since more than 1 million people sought asylum in 2015, suggesting a deal with the British was not imminent. Barnier did not disagree: “Everything takes time in Europe: the 27 don’t have the same position on this question.”

In his Brexit book, the former EU negotiator predicted that Keir Starmer would be a future prime minister. He said that forecast was made in 2018 and he had always thought that the Labour leader had “the qualities of a statesman”, but the EU would work with any British government. Nor could better relations wait, he suggested: “I think it is the moment. If we don’t build this cooperation now, when will we do it?”