What Brexit backers were promised — and what they got

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LONDON — It was a long time coming, but the Brexit campaign can finally be judged on its promises. 

In 2016, Vote Leave made a series of pledges, suggestions and assertions about what would happen if Britain voted to quit the EU and negotiated a new relationship. 

After the Brexit process claimed two prime ministers, Vote Leave ended up running the U.K. government. Its figurehead, Boris Johnson, is the prime minister. Its mastermind, Dominic Cummings, was until this month his top adviser. Other senior figures such as Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart and numerous MPs and aides are now working in and around the Downing Street machine. 

It means the people who made the promises were the people tasked with delivering them. And with the trade deal between the EU and U.K. now agreed, their record can be tested.

Here is POLITICO’s rundown of what Vote Leave promised and what it delivered.

1. Trade with the EU will be tariff-free and involve minimal bureaucracy

The U.K. has clinched a tariff-free, quota-free trade deal with the EU. But it comes with numerous strings attached and significant bureaucracy.

There will be new customs processes for haulers transporting goods between the U.K. and EU, meaning extra paperwork and checks. Truckers will need import and export declarations, security declarations and other paperwork for their shipments. New infrastructure is being built at ports to deal with queues and to check loads. There will also be new processes for trade across the Irish Sea, and both sides will need to comply with “rules of origin” procedures that will check where parts come from.

Meanwhile, the U.K. has signed up to agreements to ensure neither side can undercut the other — the so-called level playing field. On state aid, for example, there will be a dispute settlement mechanism, and both sides will have the right to slap tariffs on the other unilaterally to protect against unfair competition. So the deal is tariff free for now.

Vote Leave also promised that businesses that do not trade with the single market will not need to follow single market rules. The finer details on that front will need to be checked in the legal text, which is still to be published. But at the very least, Northern Ireland will have to follow single market rules to ensure its land border with Ireland will remain open.

2. Northern Ireland border ‘absolutely unchanged’

On a visit to Northern Ireland during the EU referendum, Boris Johnson said the border would be “absolutely unchanged.”

He was right that the Common Travel Area between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be the same and that the land border would remain open. 

But to make sure that is possible, the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is changing. There will be customs procedures for goods crossing the Irish Sea because Northern Ireland will have access to the EU customs union while remaining in the U.K. customs union. 

That will involve paperwork checks and border control posts (though not physically at the border) to undertake physical checks on some plant and animal products.

3. End supremacy of EU law and the EU’s Court of Justice

Johnson insisted at a press conference Thursday afternoon that the deal includes no role for the Court of Justice of the EU. It will be worth waiting for the legal text of the deal to be sure. But Northern Ireland will remain subject to EU customs union and single market rules, which will be overseen by the Court of Justice. So it would be wrong to suggest the entire U.K. will not be subject to judgments from the court.

4. Take back control on immigration and asylum, and cut migration to the tens of thousands

Downing Street is implementing the points-based system that was long promised. It means free movement with the EU is ending and citizens from the Continent will be treated the same as others from around the world. 

But it is still unlikely that the U.K. will cut immigration to the tens of thousands, as Gove promised Brexit would allow it to do.

The government has also promised to take a harsher line on asylum as it will no longer be bound by EU rules. 

5. Britain will take back control of its fisheries

Johnson promised during the referendum campaign that Britain would “take back control” of its waters. The pledge was vague, although others in the broader Leave campaign, such as Nigel Farage and his Fishing for Leave group, were clearer about the objectives, including the U.K. regaining “all fisheries resources.”

At the start of the negotiations, Johnson said he wanted talks on EU fishing access to U.K. waters to take place annually. Eventually it will, but there is a process to get there.

It involves a five-and-a-half-year transition, during which the EU will have full access, but the quantity of fish the U.K. can take out of shared waters will increase. Negotiations would be annual after that, and the EU will be able to retaliate with tariffs if the U.K. refuses to grant it access. So it depends on the definition of “control.”

The important detail is exactly how much more fish the U.K. will get to take out of shared waters across 100 or so stocks.

Johnson said Thursday that the amount of fish the U.K. can catch in its own waters will be “rising substantially from roughly half today to closer to two-thirds in five and a half years,” after which it can be reassessed. One person familiar with the detail said the U.K. would end up with a 25 percent share of the current EU quota.

6. £350M for the NHS instead of being sent to Brussels

Theresa May did agree to increase the NHS budget by £20 billion a year by 2023, which she claimed would mean a boost of £600 million a week in real terms by 2023-24.

But the extra cash was not a “Brexit dividend” as she and Vote Leave claimed it would be. The U.K. net contribution to the EU budget was more like £230 million a week, but Britain has had to spend huge sums on the divorce bill and on preparations for Brexit. So the NHS did get a funding boost but this isn’t as a result of the EU departure. 

7. New trade deals, and access to a European trading zone ‘from Iceland to Russia’

The U.K. has so far failed to sign a single brand new trade deal that it did not have as part of EU membership. It has been negotiating with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand and the government insists progress is going well. 

It signed a deal with Japan, which was largely based on the deal Japan has with the EU, although the U.K. did negotiate some different terms. It has also signed a number of rollover agreements the EU has with other nations. 

The U.K. can continue to negotiate with other nations and in time will no doubt agree more trade deals, so the promises could be borne out.

During the referendum campaign, Gove said the U.K. would “be part of a free trade zone that extends from Iceland to the Russian border … we would have full access to the European market but we would be free from EU regulation.”

Whether or not that has been achieved depends in part on the definition of “free trade.” The U.K. has agreed a tariff-free, quota-free deal, but the customs barriers have increased, it is still subject to numerous EU conditions, and there are still big gaps on services — for example, many business travelers will need work visas.

Britain still needs to lock in trading terms for EFTA states Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, and complete a free trade agreement with Turkey.

8. Continue cooperating on security issues and counter-terrorism

“I’m absolutely confident this is a deal that protects our police cooperation, protects our ability to catch criminals and to share intelligence across the European continent in the way we have done for many years,” Johnson said Thursday. “I don’t think people should have fears on that score.”

It will not quite be the same though. Both sides will continue to cooperate on security and counter-terrorism — but there is no doubt that cooperation has been weakened compared with EU membership.

The most important change is that the U.K. will no longer have direct, real-time access to EU security databases, such as on passenger records, criminal records, DNA and fingerprints. The deal allows for “ambitious and timely arrangements” to share such data, according to an EU document.

The U.K. will continue to observe the European Convention on Human Rights, and could see law enforcement and judicial cooperation cut off if it fails to do so. It will also have to adhere to strict data standards.

There will be “cooperation” between Europol and Eurojust, but that will amount to nothing more than what other third countries get when dealing with the EU. However, in other areas, such as the extradition of criminals, the cooperation will be closer than with third countries.

9. Financial protection for farmers who get cash from Brussels

The government will implement a new regime in the years to 2025 that will change the rules for funding farmers in England. Cash will be tied not to the amount of land, as in the EU system, but to whether that land is used for public good. 

It is unclear whether, in the long run, farmers stand to receive the same amount of money as they do now, as Vote Leave promised.

10. Continued participation in EU science research schemes, deeper cooperation on scientific collaboration, plus increased funding for science

The U.K. is retaining membership of the Horizon Europe program, under which EU states pool funding for science projects. It will also continue to participate in the Euratom Research and Training program, the Copernicus space program and others.

At his press conference Thursday afternoon, Johnson said the U.K. wanted to be a “collaborative science superpower.” Britain has been boosting its science funding, which is on course to increase to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027. More than £10 billion was allocated for research as part of the 2020 budget.

However, the U.K. will not take part in the Erasmus scheme, the university exchange program under which thousands of U.K. students attend EU institutions each year. Johnson said it was too expensive and a net loss for Britain, but he said a new scheme would be launched, named after Alan Turing, which will seek to help students attend universities around the world.

11. Wages will be higher

Umm … come back to us in a few years to work out what happened on this. But even government economic forecasters reckon a deal with the EU will hit U.K. GDP compared with retaining membership. Some wages in some sectors might increase (customs officials?) but others might even lose their jobs.

12. The union will be stronger

Gove argued on the Andrew Marr show during the referendum: “If we vote to leave, then I think the union will be stronger. Scottish nationalism has grown since we entered the European Union. There wasn’t a Scottish Nationalist MP elected at any general election when we were outside the EU.”

But in recent months, repeated polls have shown that Scotland would vote for independence if given another referendum, with Brexit a particular grievance for Scottish National Party voters. The debate is turning to whether Johnson will be able to hold off on granting one if the SNP wins big in Scottish elections in 2021.

13. Cut VAT on energy bills to save the average household £64 a year

EU rules do mean that the U.K. is unable to cut VAT on energy bills below 5 percent. Outside the EU it can. But Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who also backed Brexit, has not announced that the government will make the change. The promise remains outstanding.

14. Scrap VAT on sanitary products

The EU has long insisted it will scrap VAT on sanitary products but is still yet to do so. Sunak announced in his March budget that it would be scrapped in the U.K.

Johnson won a concession from Brussels when he struck the Withdrawal Agreement that the so-called “tampon tax” would not apply to Northern Ireland if it remains in the customs union, which it will. So that’s a checkpoint for Vote Leave.

15. The new treaty should be ready within two years and before the next election (which was May 2020)

Well … the timescales Vote Leave set out in its campaign literature were ambitious, especially with the benefit of hindsight. But no one knew then that Theresa May would call an election and lose her House of Commons majority, which put the brakes on progress. 

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