After four and a half tortuous years, the UK and EU have finally struck a Brexit deal.
But what has come out of the negotiations looks very different from what’s been promised by Brexiteers since the referendum and beyond.
This is the final comprehensive deal on the future relationship between the UK and EU once the Brexit transition period ends on January 1.
While Boris Johnson radically altered the UK’s negotiating stance to go for a harder Brexit after becoming prime minister in July 2019, it is important to remember that a Tory government alone has been negotiating our departure.
And it is not quite as advertised...
‘The easiest free trade deal in human history’
Soon after taking power following the June 2016 referendum, Theresa May hired the so-called “three Brexiteers” – foreign secretary Johnson, Brexit secretary David Davis, and trade secretary Liam Fox – to steer the government’s negotiating strategy.
And one year after the vote to leave, Fox declared that a UK/EU trade deal “should be one of the easiest in human history”.
Two general elections, two prime ministers, countless cabinet resignations (including Johnson and Davis), and dozens of knife-edge Commons votes since the referendum suggest otherwise.
That’s not to mention the trade negotiations that were settled at the 11th hour a week before the end of the transition period cliff-edge, following an all night negotiation which went deep into Christmas Eve.
‘Exact same benefits’ as EU membership
While leavers insist they always made clear that Brexit would mean leaving the European single market, there is some evidence to the contrary.
What definitely happened, though, is Davis promising in January 2017 that the Tories would negotiate “comprehensive” free trade and customs agreements “that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have” as members of the EU.
Well, Johnson’s deal does deliver tariff and quota-free trade with the EU.
But the exact same benefits? Definitely not.
Firstly, there will be a huge and costly imposition of red tape on UK businesses trading with Europe as a result of the divergence from single market rules.
There will also be customs checks on trade at UK and EU borders, and the government has spent a lot of time building lorry parks and chartering ferries in anticipation of massive delays and queues.
Even once companies have got used to the new requirements, there is little doubt that the masses of new bureaucracy will add to their costs.
Having renegotiated May’s Brexit deal with the EU by throwing his DUP allies under a bus over Northern Ireland, Johnson coaxed opposition parties into a general election to break the parliamentary impasse over his deal.
And it was in that election where the PM kept going on about his “oven ready” Brexit withdrawal agreement.
True enough, after a thumping victory, Johnson got the WA through parliament in short order and the UK left the EU on January 31 under the terms of the agreement.
But crucially, key aspects of the special status the deal created for Northern Ireland are still not finally resolved.
Johnson was also quoted in the election campaign as suggesting that a trade deal was already “oven ready”, because “100% of the issues we need to address in a trade negotiation are already addressed”.
But the government spent nearly the whole of 2020 in pained negotiations on the free trade deal that will come into force on January 1, 2021.
It appears the claims of an oven-ready deal were somewhat overcooked.
No checks on Northern Irish trade
Trumpeting his withdrawal agreement in the run-up to the election, Johnson also insisted that it would not create the need for checks on goods travelling between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.
“There’s no question of there being checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or Great Britain to Northern Ireland,” the PM said in December.
But months later in May 2020, his own government’s plan for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain blew up Johnson’s claims.
Businesses will need to fill out import declarations for goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland. These goods will then be subject to checks.
And Northern Irish firms will only get “unfettered” access to the rest of the UK if they “qualify” under a scheme being set up by the government.
Months later, Johnson was found scrambling to give ministers the power to undo key parts of the deal, in breach of international law – perhaps after realising that it very much does include checks and paperwork on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But those plans were dropped after Michael Gove reached a deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, which yes, does include checks.
The deal will ‘intensify’ security
Gove sparked the fury of May when he claimed in October that Brexit could give intelligence and law enforcement services the power to “intensify” the security they provide for the UK.
The former prime minister was caught on camera looking at a colleague in astonishment and asking “what?!” as Gove made the comments during a Commons statement.
And the former PM was right.
Johnson’s deal does not give the UK access to crucial databases like the Schengen Information System 2 (SIS2) to allow police and the security services to track threats.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said in November that the loss of SIS2, which means anyone notified as wanted or missing can be automatically seen across Europe, would have a “major operational impact”.