Brexit Britain warned as Juncker's right-hand man given top role – 'He will be tough'

Jean-Claude Juncker was European Commission President from 2014 until 2019 and was central to the Brexit negotiations between the European Union and UK following the historic referendum nearly five years ago. The leading Eurocrat often sparked outrage in the UK with his repeated outbursts over Brexit and criticism of UK during the negotiating process. But now Richard Szostak has been appointed to head up a new EU unit to partly replace Michel Barnier’s disbanded Brexit taskforce and oversee the challenging task of shaping the EU’s often turbulent relationship with Brexit Britain.

The 42-year-old is a Londoner born to Polish parents who met in the UK after fleeing Warsaw’s communist regime and, when part of Mr Junker’s cabinet in which he was heavily involved in Brexit negotiations, gained a reputation for being firm yet personable.

Those who have worked with Mr Szostak have said he is cool under pressure but also unafraid to flex his muscles when the pressure is ramped up.

An ally within the European Commission told Politico: “Szostak will do a fantastic job.

“He has had jobs of great responsibility at the Commission. He is very kind, serious and diplomatic.

“He can be tough, but always with a big smile.”

When the UK voted to leave the EU during the referendum of 2016, Mr Szostak was charged with monitoring the day-to-day work of Barnier’s Brexit taskforce on behalf of Brexit hardliner Martin Selmayr, who was Mr Junker’s chief of staff at the time.

But during the early months of Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU, some officials were reportedly keeping a close eye on Mr Szostak’s close links to Mr Selmayr, worried he shared his boss’ apparent hatred towards Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.

Charles Grant, director at the Centre for European Reform think tank, told Politico: “The British thought that during the Brexit negotiations he sometimes took quite a hard line.

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“Nobody accused him of being too soft on the British.”

London and Brussels remain at loggerheads over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, with the latest row coming over how to check goods entering the country from Britain without impacting on trade or undercutting the EU’s single market.

The tensions have ramped up dramatically after the European Commission threatened to take legal action against the UK over its decision to unilaterally postpone the introduction of border checks on goods in Northern Ireland – a move that has triggered fury from Downing Street.

Mr Grant has warned: “If David Frost or one of his deputies gives him a hard time, Richard will not take it lying down.”

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But the think tank boss argued the new enforcer will struggle to focus Brussels’ attention towards Brexit-related disputes, particular as the EU is in the middle of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and pressure over its chaotic vaccine rollout.

He said: “Szostak’s job is almost impossible at the moment.

“I think it will be very difficult for him to get the EU to focus on what is necessary, especially since the UK’s rather inept misbehavior will give the EU an excuse to do nothing at all.”

Mr Szostak’s new role comes with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen shaking up the teams in charge of monitoring the post-Brexit relationship with Britain.

Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic will lead all future work on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

He will be supported by a newly-formed UK service of experts who will work exclusively on post-Brexit talks with Britain.

In a farewell message earlier this month, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Mr Barnier warned there are still “many challenges ahead” for UK-EU relations.

The Frenchman said: “More than four years of hard work and two incredible teams.

“Mission accomplished: ensure orderly Brexit, defend EU and new relations with the UK.

“Each and every person was outstanding. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

“Today is the first day of the rest of our lives. Many challenges ahead.”

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