Brussels chief negotiator Michel Barnier was forced to update a graphic in which he claims Britain is not allowed to sign a Canada-style trade deal with the European Union.
Mr Barnier ordered officials to alter the slide after it emerged incorrect data was used to exaggerate the UK’s trade with the bloc compared to the likes of South Korea, Canada and Japan. He had hoped to rubbish British demands for a Canada-style free-trade agreement by claiming the “UK is different from other trade partners”. They argued that the bloc’s hefty level playing field demands are accepted because of the UK’s proximity to the EU’s borders.
But the plot backfired after the graph was analysed by experts, who said the chart was “horribly misleading”.
In the original graphic, the UK’s bubble was more than 16 times larger than Japan’s despite the UK’s trade volume standing at €516.6 billion and Japan’s at €117.1 billion in 2018.
At a press conference yesterday, Mr Barnier explained the error. He said: “I have circulated this slide and I got it updated in terms of the volumes shown on it, there was a bit of controversy around the volumes represented on this graph, the diameter of each circle, which rather amused me, but I got it updated so it was beyond dispute.”
He added: “It shows the different situations depending whether you’re close or a long-way off, the United States is over there, rather than here, that’s the volume.
“In the context of free-trade agreements, past and future, the UK is a very special place, which is so close geographically to the EU and economically to, I don’t think any other country is in that situation.”
But Downing Street hit back at Brussels’ argument against a standard free-trade agreement.
A spokesman said: “The EU has respected the autonomy of other major economies around the world such as Canada and Japan when signing trade deals with them. We just want the same.
“We agree the UK’s trade with the EU is significant. The US’s is on the same scale – yet that did not stop the EU being willing to offer the US zero tariffs without the kind of level playing field commitments or the legal oversight they have put in today’s mandate.”
Another UK source was quick to point out Mr Barnier’s chart doesn’t even feature the United States – because the EU doesn’t yet have a trade deal with the country.
Trade experts also ruled out the use of such a graphic in negotiations, but warned talks are often a “blood sport”.
Of the original graphic, David Spiegelhalter, a professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, told Politico the Commission’s tactics were “indefensible” and goes against “standard graphical practice”.
He added: “It’s also the biggest mistake to make. It’s incorrect to use diameter to represent volume… the sort of thing a junior person would do.”
Tensions between Britain and Brussels have threatened to boil over after a series of briefings against one another.
Former Brexit Party MEP Rupert Lowe accused Mr Barnier of attempting to “mislead” the public using PowerPoint presentations.
He said “For a remarkably intelligent man Barnier has horribly misjudged the mood of these negotiations.
“Misleading graphs may have pulled the wool over Robbins and May’s eyes but that won’t fly with David Frost.
“It’s not the first time Barnier has been caught out by PowerPoint. In 2017 his own slides showed Canada as the only available relationship. When Boris took him up on the offer he has embarrassingly backtracked! Frost finally has him on the run and the EU can’t stand it.”
The Commission denied attempting manipulate figures to bolster their arguments.
A spokesman said: “The purpose of the slide is for information and presentational purposes only.
“The chart was generated with an Excel chart tool, based on data from Eurostat. The width of each bubble is proportionate to the total trade of each country.”