Michel Barnier caused irritation in Downing Street on Wednesday with a speech in which he appeared to link Britain’s vote to leave the EU with global solidarity in the battle against Isis.
Speaking at a security conference in Berlin, the European commission’s chief negotiator in the Brexit talks spoke about the shock across the rest of the EU at the referendum result last year – and linked it to the collective struggle against terrorism.
“To many of us this came as a great shock. It was a decision taken against the backdrop of a strategic repositioning by our American ally, which has gathered pace since the election of Donald Trump.
“It was a decision that came after a series of attacks on European soil, committed by young people who grew up in Europe, in our countries.
“It was a decision that came six months after the French minister of defence issued a call for solidarity to all his European counterparts to join forces to fight the terrorism of Daesh.
“Never had the need to be together, to protect ourselves together, to act together been so strong, so manifest. Yet rather than stay shoulder to shoulder with the union, the British chose to be on their own again,” he said.
One senior government source described the remarks as “surprising”, and said they suggested Britain was not “doing its bit”. He also pointed out the unfortunate timing, as Theresa May visited Iraq on Wednesday to highlight the UK’s role in tackling Islamic extremism.
Asked about Barnier’s speech, the prime minister’s official spokesman refused to comment directly, but stressed the “leading role Britain has played and continues to play in combating Daesh”.
“The prime minister has been absolutely clear about our commitment to the ongoing security of Europe and of the European Union and her determination to continue cooperating with the EU, sharing information and standing together against IS and terrorism in all its forms,” he said.
Conservative MP and former minister Andrew Murrison called the speech a “jaw-droppingly ill-informed, graceless rant from Michel Barnier”.
Stefaan De Rynck, an adviser to Barnier, said in a tweet that the EU’s chief negotiator had merely stressed the EU’s partnership with the UK on defence and security.
In his speech, Barnier also welcomed the fact that the EU had confounded predictions Brexit would spark a breakup, and instead member states had agreed to cooperate more closely in some areas, including defence.
“Following the UK referendum, many people assured us that divisions would spread,” he said. “And yet, in an act of collective responsibility, Europeans suddenly woke up and responded by choosing unity.
“They affirmed their common project, even in one of the core areas of national sovereignty: security and defence.”
Barnier, who is widely thought to be keen to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as the president of the European commission, has repeatedly clashed with the Brexit secretary, David Davis, during months of tough negotiations in Brussels — but Downing Street believes ultimately he will be keen to show EU capitals that he can deliver a deal.
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