LISBON, Portugal — The European Union's top Brexit negotiator said Tuesday that he still hasn't heard an adequate argument explaining the benefit of the U.K. withdrawing from the bloc.
"Until now, no one has ever managed to explain to me the added value of Brexit," Barnier told an audience at the Web Summit technology conference. "No one. And not even Nigel Farage."
Farage, who established the Euroskeptic Brexit Party earlier this year, was a key figure in the movement to bring the U.K.'s membership of the EU to the top of the national political conversation. Despite this, he has said he will not stand as a parliamentary candidate in the upcoming election.
Brussels and London recently reached a divorce deal that would see Britain exiting the EU, but the resulting legislation has been put on hold as the country heads for a December election — the first since 1923.
The U.K. Parliament actually voted, in principle, for Prime Minister Boris Johnson's revised withdrawal agreement last month, but said it needed more time to approve all the necessary legislation encompassed in the Brexit bill.
The EU subsequently granted the country an extension to the Brexit deadline, delaying its planned exit until January 31.
Barnier said "the place where Brexit creates the greatest risks and problems" is Ireland, which has been at the center of talks amid worries of a hard border being put up between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
There are concerns this could risk peace in the region and undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence.
Barnier said all parties involved in negotiations around Brexit must "deeply agree a legally operative solution" to the Northern Ireland issue that avoids a hard border and preserves the Irish economy.
Once Britain leaves the EU, it still has to negotiate on its future trading relationship with the bloc. Barnier said that Europe "will be ready to start the negotiation as soon as the U.K. ratifies the withdrawal agreement."
Nevertheless, he added, until all talks are completed, "the risk of a cliff edge remains, and we should all remain vigilant and prepare for that possible outcome."