Wales must take the lead as the UK redefines itself before Brexit

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Plaid Cymru Shadow Secretary for External Affairs, Steffan Lewis AM, writes for the Sunday Times on how Wales can and must be bold in its response to Brexit. 

The referendum result of June 23rd did not only cause a fracture in the politics of Europe but have exacerbated already simmering discord among the countries of these islands.

The Unionist assertion that the referendum was a UK-wide plebiscite and therefore the overall result must apply to each constituent part, does not wash anymore in post-devolution Britain.

The consequence therefore is not only an urgent need to redefine and renew the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe but an additional need to redefine the relations between the countries of these islands. Indeed, the latter is a pre-requisite for the former.
There can be no new post-Brexit framework until a new political framework is adopted among our countries.

The Prime Minister has said that there will be a role for devolved administrations in the Brexit process, but that is to miss the point entirely. There were four different national results declared on June 24th, resulting in a two-all draw with each of the four administrations playing different hands very differently indeed.

As far as Wales’s government is concerned, it finds itself in a unique position in being a pro-EU administration in a nation that voted to leave that union. No one doubts the difficulty of that position. Our first minister has cornered himself, desperately seeking some form of political leverage at a UK level and frightened of appearing further out of step with the Welsh majority view.

That has resulted in a state of Welsh governmental paralysis on the defining issue of our generation.

To date, Theresa May, and anyone else observing, has little idea of the ‘Welsh line’ on Brexit. Our government here cannot decide whether it wants continued membership of the Single Market or a new free trade deal, has suggested a moratorium on free movement of people but opposes devolved work visas to protect the Welsh NHS and sectors of the economy where there’s a skills shortage, and has declined to recruit its own trade specialists to ensure Dr Fox’s new Trade Departments does not run amock over Welsh interests.

In a bizarre speech in Chicago recently, the first minister attempted to create some political leverage for himself by warning that Wales’s continuation within the UK would be in doubt should a Brexit deal deemed unpalatable for Wales be enforced by Whitehall. That proved to be an empty threat. Within days, the first minister confirmed that there would be absolutely no constitutional consequences in that event on the part his government.

Westminster can do its worst to Wales.

Aside from the publication of six bullet points, the Welsh government response to Brexit has amounted to little more than very detailed descriptions of the problems posed by the new political context. That particular niche is already well serviced by journalists. What is needed now is leadership.

Whilst no one can predict where we will be in two months let alone two years, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a substantial Welsh government position on four key strands: firstly, the mechanisms for intra-UK negotiations and when they should commence.

Secondly, the preferred model for UK-EU negotiations once Article Fifty is triggered.

Thirdly, the strengthening and creation of new institutions at a British Isles level to permanently facilitate matters such as the Irish border and free movement and trade within these islands.

Fourthly, permanent structures to oversee ever-looser union among the countries of the British State.

All four points, whilst related to the final outcome of Brexit, do not need to, nor indeed should, be kept on hold until the UK’s Treaty of Succession with the EU is concluded, nor should we wait for the much-anticipated triggering of Article Fifty.

For Plaid Cymru’s part, on the first strand, the Joint Ministerial Committee should now meet regularly to establish the position of each of the administrations. In preparation, the Welsh government should conduct and conclude a chapter-by-chapter analysis of all EU treaties and regulations to establish those it wants to maintain and to identify which soon-to-be repatriated functions it wants to head straight from Brussels to Cardiff Bay.

If it follows such a path for the second strand it could argue for a chapter-by-chapter UK-EU negotiation – a reverse accession model – that could result in the negotiations themselves being conducted in the UK, perhaps rotating between each UK capital.

The third strand will also prove crucial. Common EU membership between the UK and Ireland underpins the peace process there and that has consequences for all of us - economically, socially and politically. There is also a big question mark over our future ability to draw down resources from the European Investment Bank, in which case it may prove prudent to create an Investment Bank of the Isles with each government a joint shareholder.

But to facilitate free movement of goods, services and people in these islands in addition to accommodating an EU frontier between us, the time has surely come for us to emulate the Nordic cooperation model here.

Strand four was always going to be necessary but the make-up of the referendum result necessitates a new ‘draw-down’ model of devolution that relies not on the whim of Whitehall but on the expressed wishes of the peoples of our nations. Ever-looser union here must be accommodated to deliver the admittedly differing national aspirations of the peoples of the UK.

No party has all of the answers for the unchartered waters we now find ourselves occupying. But whether we’re in a lifeboat or a ship, what matters now is the course we chart for ourselves.

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