The European Union will seek to address the difficulties facing hauliers and retailers in Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit, Michel Barnier has said.
Post Brexit red-tape has caused the volumes of trade from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland to fall sharply, with empty shelves appearing in supermarkets and certain products becoming unavailable.
Mr Barnier, who negotiated the Brexit deal on behalf of the EU, said they would look at finding a way “to address the difficulties” but warned that the new rules are here to stay.
Mr Barnier said: “Brexit means Brexit. It cannot be business as usual, either in Northern Ireland or Ireland, nor in any other EU member states.
“We have to tackle these consequences. I know. I carefully follow the situation in Northern Ireland for the hauliers, for retailers. I know the difficulty for the fishermen.
“So we look at this difficulty with objectivity, to find a way to to address the difficulties. But for the last four years I have always, very often explained that we have to be prepared for the challenges.
“The changes are linked mechanically, automatically to the Brexit, and the fact that the UK decided unilaterally to leave the Union, the single market and the customs union.
“So that means many, many changes. We will continue to follow your difficulties to try to help.”
He added: “Each and every product entering the single market in Ireland, and everywhere else, must respect the standards and the rules that we implement inside the EU.”
These rules, he said, are for “the protection of the consumers, the food security, animals and vegetables, to protect our budget also, and to protect businesses against counterfeiting”.
Mr Barnier was speaking from Brussels today, where he was named European of the Year 2020 by European Movement Ireland.
Congratulations @MichelBarnier on being named #EuropeanOfTheYear by @emireland
Over the past four years, you embodied all that was best about the EU – resourcefulness, determination and integrity - as you worked tirelessly to make a Brexit deal possible. https://t.co/JNLmEIzmwS
— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) January 21, 2021
It was intended that he would receive the award last year but the planned ceremony was disrupted by Brexit talks.
Mr Barnier said that while he was not concerned that other EU member states might follow the UK out of the bloc, he said Europe must remain vigilant against unrest.
“We need to show that Europe works for its citizens … as an added value for each and every citizen” he said.
“We need to better understand the reasons of social anger in some regions of Europe, ensure that we are working to provide real workable solutions.
“There are reasons and we have to listen. We have to understand, and we have to answer. It’s obviously too late for the UK but it’s not too late for the member states.”
Tributes were paid to Mr Barnier by Irish premier Micheal Martin, and the foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney.
Mr Martin described Mr Barnier as the “face and embodiment of European solidarity”.
He added: “Over the past four years, a very particular bond has been formed between you and people of Ireland.
“That you are so well known in Ireland is a reflection of the fact that from the beginning you spared no effort to understand the unique and disproportionate challenges facing our island in the context of Brexit.”
He added: “You can also be credited with ensuring the wider united cohesive approach of the European Union 27 throughout the Brexit process, including during its most critical moments.
Mr Coveney said: “I had the privilege of working closely with you from the very start at the Brexit negotiations, and you have never faltered throughout our regular meetings in Brussels and Dublin and beyond.
“I’ve been struck, not only by how effectively and persuasively you’ve represented the EU’s interests and values, but also by the enormous effort you’ve made to understand the specific issues affecting our island.
“You’ve done this with fairness and commanding attention to detail in the most challenging of moments.”
He added: “Michel has asked me for one thing when this is all over – a quiet and peaceful fishing trip in the west of Ireland.
“I can assure you that is guaranteed. Congratulations on the award. And thank you from everybody in Ireland.”