On 24 June 2016, Wales awoke on the “winning side” of the EU referendum. 17 of 22 local authority areas had voted “Leave”, totalling 52.5% of those who went to the polls. And this against a backdrop of high levels of EU funding, a devolution settlement premised on EU membership, and overwhelming support for “Remain” from Welsh politicians and sectoral organisations. So began Wales’ Brexit journey: a divided nation with a weak bargaining hand, yet with distinct interests to protect both within the UK and within Europe.
Wales’ journey since the EU referendum
The Leave vote in Wales placed the Welsh Government in an unenviable position. Prior to the EU referendum, it had vehemently expressed its preference for Remain, asserting that the risks of Brexit were manifold in financial, economic and political terms. Indeed, as a beneficiary from EU funds (totalling £658 million in 2014) and a small nation for whom the Single Market holds particular significance, this pro-EU position had been rather taken for granted in Welsh politics. The voting public, however, did not agree.
The Leave vote left the Welsh Government without a mandate to advocate its pro-EU position. Added to this is the Welsh Government’s weak bargaining hand in its dealings with the UK Government. In this, Wales differs from Scotland (through calls for a second independence referendum) and Northern Ireland (with acutely sensitive political issues that demand attention), both of which voted Remain.
During the summer of 2016, the political institutions of Wales set to work preparing themselves for the UK’s prospective withdrawal from the EU. The Welsh Government established inter alia an EU Transition Team to coordinate all Brexit activity, and a European Advisory Group of external stakeholders. The response of the National Assembly for Wales was swift and decisive. Days after the EU referendum, it issued a report outlining some of the implications of the referendum for Wales. It then embarked upon a programme of research and analysis,spearheaded by the newly created Committee on External Affairs and Additional Legislation.
The Committee launched its report, ‘Implications for Wales of leaving the European Union’ in early January 2017, in which it
clearly outlined the priority areas for Wales and a scrutiny role for the Assembly. The Welsh Government’s white paper on Brexit
was released later that month, on 23 January 2017, in partnership with Plaid Cymru, as an evidence based contribution to the UK debate. The White Paper – ‘Securing Wales’ Future: Transition from the European Union to a new relationship with Europe’ addressed both the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and the internal functioning of the UK post-Brexit, as a union of four nations (see the contributions by Jo Hunt and Michael Keating).
The Welsh Government presents a contrasting vision of Brexit to that proposed by the UK Government. Not least, it prefers continued participation in both the single market and the Customs Union. The Welsh Government also stresses the importance of freedom of movement, although asserts that there ought to be a stronger link between freedom of movement and employment than is currently exercised in the UK. It calls for continued Welsh involvement in a number of EU programmes, including Horizon 2020 (for science and research), ERASMUS+ (education and training), Creative Europe (supporting cultural and creative sectors) and the Ireland-Wales Programme (a European Territorial Cooperation programme that connects organisations, businesses and communities). It also seeks for the UK to remain a partner in the European Investment Bank.
Despite these contrasting positions, the Welsh Government has consistently emphasised areas of complementarity with the UK Government, insisting that their positions are “not irreconcilable”. It is in this cooperative spirit that the Welsh Government has participated in the cross-nations forum on Brexit: the Joint Ministerial Committee on European Negotiations or JMC (EN), established on 24 October 2016. This forum“seek[s] to agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, Article 50 negotiations”. However, even the most measured participants have been moved to express some exasperation.
Both the Welsh and Scottish representatives (Cabinet Secretary Mark Drakeford and Minister Michael Russell, respectively) have been outspoken in their critique of the forum, with Drakeford stating that, “St Fagans Community Council, in my constituency would be better organised than most JMC meetings have been.” Indeed, there is little to indicate that the UK Government has engaged seriously with the devolved administrations. This does not bode well for the latter’s role in the Brexit negotiations themselves, something both the Welsh and Scottish Governments have called for.
What next for Wales?
Today, Wales is working to protect its future both within the UK and within Europe. Of central importance to Wales is the Great Repeal Bill, and its consequences for devolution and the future of the UK’s own union (see Jo Hunt’s contribution). Attached to this are fundamental questions about how powers will be repatriated to the UK, how (or indeed whether) lost EU funds (specifically for agriculture and regional development policy) will be compensated for via UK domestic sources, and how Welsh interests will be protected in international trade deals. Beyond this, during the negotiations themselves, Wales will continue work to defend its key industries, seeking to ensure sufficient levels of migration and pushing for a close relationship between the UK and the EU.
By Dr Rachel Minto, Research Associate – Brexit and UK devolved politics at Cardiff University.