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Brexit trade deal: Nine claims by Boris Johnson or his ministers that are untrue

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By Alasdair Sandford
Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement at 10 Downing Street, London Wednesday Dec. 30, 2020.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement at 10 Downing Street, London Wednesday Dec. 30, 2020.   -   Copyright  Leon Neal/Pool via AP
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Some of Boris Johnson's assertions about Brexit in the past have become notorious for not being precisely truthful.

During the 2016 referendum campaign he famously (and falsely) said the UK paid £350 million (€390 million) per week to the EU — a claim plastered on a campaign bus.

Upon becoming prime minister he promised the UK would leave the EU at the end of October 2019, "no ifs or buts". He was forced to seek a delay to the UK's exit, which finally happened in January 2020.

During the 2019 general election campaign he said he had a trade deal with the EU "ready to go". The bitter tussle in the negotiations throughout 2020 showed the hard-won accord was anything but — although his supporters insist his references to an "oven-ready" deal referred to the preceding divorce agreement.

More recently, Johnson and his ministers have continued to make questionable assertions about Brexit, particularly relating to the agreement on EU-UK trade and future relations struck on Christmas Eve.

Here Euronews holds a selection of them up to the light.

1. Non-tariff trade barriers

"There will be no non-tariff barriers to trade" — Boris Johnson.

This claim, already widely reported and called out for being plain wrong, came during the prime minister's news conference on December 24, the day the post-Brexit trade deal with the EU was announced.

The text of his statement is on the 10 Downing Street website. The prime minister also claimed that the deal "will if anything allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends".

Asked later to explain this assertion, Johnson cited the UK's greater autonomy to help its own businesses, "whilst not having any barriers to trade with the EU".

The truth is that the UK's voluntary exit from the EU Single Market and Customs Union brings a plethora of non-tariff barriers to trade between Britain and the continent. The UK government's own website details the many changes for exporters and importers.

At GB-EU borders there are customs declarations to be filled out, rules of origin checks to undergo, regulatory controls, health checks and more.

A week after Johnson's mistaken claim, the government updated its advice on EU trading requirements. It runs to 159 double pages.

There are further barriers to UK trade with the EU: UK nationals need permits to work in EU countries, while their professional qualifications may not automatically be recognised across borders.

2. Northern Ireland border

"There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’" — Brandon Lewis, UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The pro-Brexit minister and former Conservative Party chairman made this claim on Twitter on New Year's Day, the day that new trade border operations kicked into action between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This involves new checks, controls and paperwork. Most goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain need a customs declaration. New border control posts have been set up.

These new arrangements are the result of the EU divorce deal. In order to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK — and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member — the Northern Ireland Protocol keeps the North aligned to EU Single Market rules and obliges it to follow the EU customs code.

The consequent effect on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland — the "Irish Sea" question — is equally politically sensitive.

In the autumn of 2019, Boris Johnson wrongly asserted that there would be no customs or regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Britain in either direction, contrary to the terms of the divorce deal he had just struck with the EU.

The UK government accepted in May 2020 that there would be customs declarations and regulatory checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

3. EU Erasmus+ scheme

"There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, we will continue to participate" — Boris Johnson.

The prime minister made this categoric assertion in the House of Commons in January 2020, accusing an MP who suggested otherwise of "talking through the back of his neck".

"UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will be able to continue to come to this country," Johnson said.

As the post-Brexit deal was struck on Christmas Eve, it was confirmed that the UK is leaving the EU's Erasmus+ student exchange programme.

The UK government has described the cost as "too great", and plans to set up a new exchange programme with universities around the world, not just in Europe. Its replacement Turing scheme — named after World War II code-breaker Alan Turing — is scheduled for launch in September 2021.

4. Fishing rights

"In five and a half years’ time after which there is no theoretical limit beyond those placed by science or conservation on the quantity of our own fish that we can fish in our waters" — Boris Johnson.

The prime minister's comment came during his December 24 news conference marking the post-Brexit trade deal. "We will, as a result of this deal, be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish," he added.

His time reference refers to the agreed transition period on fisheries, during which time EU access to UK waters will be cut by a quarter, and British quotas will be increased.

Annual negotiations will then take place. The UK may claim to have control of its waters, but Johnson's assertion may ring hollow. Under the terms of the deal, the EU can take retaliatory action if access is further reduced. And the UK, which sells most of its fish into the EU, is likely to continue to need the European market.

5. Financial services

"Above all it means certainty for businesses from financial services to... (other industries)" — Boris Johnson.

The prime minister added to these comments about the new trade deal on December 24, telling the news conference after his prepared statement that "there's some good language about equivalence for financial services".

Financial services were never scheduled to be covered by the deal, and instead are to be dealt with by a separate process. It is hard to see how this amounts to "certainty".

UK financial services firms lose "passporting rights" which allowed them to sell into the EU from the UK without the need for additional clearance.

Instead, they will have to comply with individual states' requirements, or hope for "equivalence" decisions whereby the EU will unilaterally grant approval to the UK and its financial services firms.

"The Agreement does not include any elements pertaining to equivalence frameworks for financial services," says the European Commission's assessment. It adds that the EU will seek clarification on the UK's plans, particularly over divergence, and "will consider equivalence (decisions) when they are in the EU's interest".

Talks are expected to get underway early in 2021, vitally important for the UK given that almost half of the sector's exports go to the EU.

Johnson's predecessor Theresa May expressed her disappointment at the failure to strike a deal on financial services.

"Sadly it has not been achieved. We have a deal in trade which benefits the EU, but not a deal in services that would have benefited the UK," she said.

6. Security cooperation

"On security and police cooperation I'm absolutely confident this is a deal that protects... our ability to catch criminals and to share intelligence across the European continent in the way that we have done for many years" — Boris Johnson.

"It means both sides have effective tools to tackle serious crime and terrorism, protecting the public and bringing criminals to justice. But we will also seize this historic opportunity to make the UK safer and more secure through firmer and fairer border controls" — Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary (interior minister).

The deal on the future relationship, which also includes matters such as security and police cooperation as well as trade, does not enable the UK to continue to share intelligence in the same way as it did under EU membership.

The UK will remain in some EU security exchange programmes, but will no longer be part of the European Arrest Warrant or Europol.

Both sides agreed to establish a new security framework which the European Commission says envisages "strong cooperation between national police and judicial authorities, including ambitious extradition arrangements, and the swift exchange of vital data".

On DNA and fingerprint data there will be exchanges of information, but the EU says the UK will have "no direct, real-time access". It will also lose access to the Schengen Information System (SIS), which the EU describes as "the most widely used and largest information-sharing system for security and border management in Europe".

7. Striking new trade deals

"We are going to open... a new chapter in our national story, striking free trade deals around the world, adding to the agreements with 63 countries we've already achieved" — Boris Johnson.

"We have now agreed trade deals covering 62 countries plus the EU" — Liz Truss, UK Trade Secretary.

These claims also came in the wake of the UK-EU trade deal. During the post-Brexit transition period the UK has been free to negotiate new trade deals, which it can implement now it is out of the EU's Customs Union.

The 60 plus trade deals the government refers to are not new agreements with countries with whom there was previously no accord.

The ministers are talking about EU trade deals with these countries, which would have ceased to apply to the UK after the end of the post-Brexit transition period.

However, the UK has succeeded in rolling over these deals, to continue trading with the countries on the same terms.

In October the UK did strike a new trade deal with Japan, which differs from the previous EU-Japan agreement that no longer applies to the UK.

Emily Thornberry, the opposition Labour Party's spokesperson on trade, challenged Liz Truss in the House of Commons, saying the government's own figures showed the UK will benefit less from its new Japan deal than it would have done by rolling over the EU's agreement.

"It doesn't suggest any great ambitions for the UK in trade policy," David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project, told Euronews at the time. "There hasn't been a huge vision of how we will do things differently to the EU."

8. Lawyers

"There's some good stuff about barristers, solicitors, lawyers being able to practice around the European Union" — Boris Johnson.

The prime minister's comments on Christmas Eve were echoed by the government's summary of the trade deal, which hailed "ground-breaking provisions on legal services that go beyond what the EU has included in any other FTA (free trade agreement) to date".

But according to international legal firm Stephenson Harwood, this is not quite the whole picture.

"The basic position is that the agreement only permits UK-qualified lawyers, within the territory of the EU, to advise on their 'home jurisdiction law and public international law, excluding European Union law'," it said in a blog.

9. Walking away from the trade talks

"There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on 15 October... If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on" — Boris Johnson.

The prime minister's comments on September 7 indicated that the UK government would walk away from the trade talks unless "the EU are ready to rethink their current positions".

"From our point of view, the trade negotiations are finished," Downing Street said after the October summit indeed proved fruitless. "The EU has de facto put an end to them and it will only be worth talking to each other if there is a fundamental change in the EU's position."

Less than a week later however there was a change of tack.

"Clearly, significant differences remain between our positions on the most difficult subjects but we are ready with the EU, to see if it is possible to bring them closer during intensive discussions," said a spokesman for the prime minister as Euronews reported on October 21.

There had been no "fundamental change" in the EU's position, although chief negotiator Michel Barnier had said a deal was within reach if both sides made compromises — adding that Brussels was ready to start writing a legal text.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.