The EU will "never, never, never" compromise on the integrity of the bloc's single market when it comes to negotiating a trade deal with the U.K., according to the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
"There will be no compromise on the single market. Never, never, never," Barnier said at Queen's University Belfast Monday evening. "It is our main asset on the EU side," he said. "Never will the EU compromise, (make) fragile or unravel the single market, never," he said.
The EU's single market seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor — the "four freedoms" — within the EU. With a collective population of over 500 million people and consumers, the value of single market membership and that unfettered movement of goods and services is a boon to businesses in the bloc.
When the U.K. leaves the EU on Friday January 31, it will remain a member of the single market but only during a "transition period" until the end of 2020.
During that time, the U.K. and EU will try to strike a trade deal although the short time frame is seen as ambitious and Brussels has warned London that the trading relationship will not be the same post-Brexit.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar suggested in an interview with the BBC Monday that the EU will be the "stronger team" in post-Brexit trade talks and that striking a deal would be "difficult." U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is bullish, however, saying the U.K. can "wrap up" a deal by its self-imposed deadline of the end of 2020.
Speaking at the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute, Barnier said the consequences of leaving the trade bloc had not been understood in the U.K.
"Leaving the EU, leaving the single market, leaving the customs union, it's the choice of the U.K., will have consequences. And what I saw in the past, in the last year, is that many of these consequences have been underestimated in the U.K., or not so well explained to the people," he said. "Now we have to face the reality and to be realistic."
The EU is particularly worried about ensuring what it calls a "level playing field" when it comes to the U.K. It's concerned that the U.K. could pursue a more active business subsidy policy, competitive tax regime and competition policy.
Meanwhile the U.K. is understandably keen to maintain the "frictionless trade" of goods and services it has so far enjoyed as a member of the EU, but Barnier said that would not be possible.
"There will be no possibility for frictionless trade between the EU and the U.K. after Brexit. At least we will have control of goods, because we have the duty, the responsibility, to protect EU consumers and EU businesses."