This article originally appeared in the welsh agenda, issue 60, published in May 2018.
The advocates of Brexit conjure up a vision of a Global Britain, outward looking, exercising a leadership role free from the shackles of the European Union. In regaining our sovereignty, Britain will press the case for free trade, support the rules based international system, and invest in new partnerships, notably in Asia and Africa. A Westminster Committee recently asked how much of this approach was rhetorical, a branding exercise?
Certainly meat needs to be put on these bones and the substance spelt out more clearly. The case for free trade is well established. It leads to increased prosperity and economic growth. But in practice trade negotiations are tortuous, dictated by national self-interest. Agriculture is invariably sensitive with pressure to protect individual sectors. Agreeing free trade in Services is always difficult and the protection of sensitive industries the norm. Successive WTO and GATT Rounds illustrate the point forcefully. Britain may champion free trade but will enough other countries join us soon enough to produce early agreed benefits?
Free trade attracts adjectives – unfettered trade, tariff free trade, frictionless trade, unhindered trade. The most complete free trade arrangement excludes tariffs and duties, eliminates non-tariff regulatory barriers, prohibits government aid to producers and unfair competition, and ensures that rules are enforced. Those conditions are only fully embodied within the Internal Market of the European Union. When we leave, any future deep special relation with the EU can only offer less economic benefit than today’s access, and no new external UK agreement with a third country or regional grouping will be able fully to reproduce these advantages.
Much is rightly made of Britain’s international assets – our defence spending and military capability, a generous aid budget, permanent membership of the UN Security Council, membership of G7 and so on. But we should be careful of claiming the leadership credential. A leadership yes and powerfully so. However, a leadership role requires those who want to be led. We shouldn’t assume this is readily available. The Commonwealth has no real political structure or unity. Nor do most third countries share British interests and values in the same way as our European neighbours. Perhaps above all in the EU we share much and have the habit of working together within an institutional structure. It will be much harder to influence others after Brexit than it has been to take a leading role within an EU of 28. During the UK Presidency of the EU in 2005 when I set out the EU position in the UN General Assembly, the EU represented 20% of the global economy and 7% of the world’s population. The representative of the UK post Brexit will represent 3% and 1% respectively and will have to work even harder to have real influence.
Foreign policy is adapting to the challenges the United Kingdom faces. These are increasingly global – environmental, cleaner energy, climate change, terrorism, cyber attacks, migration flows and demographic change and more. They have in common the need to work with friends and the like minded to find collective responses. Of course Britain will have national objectives, but Britain alone will not be able to deliver solutions. It will be a real challenge to exercise influence and leadership, and will require strategic direction, backed by sufficient resources. Leaving the EU may offer an opportunity but it will come with a requirement to adopt a new strategic approach backed up by increased resources.
Foreign and defence policy are issues reserved for the British Government and Westminster. Yet of course policies put in place and decisions taken will impact inevitably on Wales. A few examples illustrate this. A free trade agreement with New Zealand would directly affect the Welsh sheep industry. Similarly, an UK external agreement with a third country or institution which includes areas devolved within the United Kingdom should as a minimum have been discussed with the devolved administrations.
The terms of the UK’s future relations with the EU will be vital for Wales: 60% of our exports of manufactured goods go to the EU. Free access to the EU market for manufactured goods, and unhindered movement of components to and from the EU will be crucial for aeronautical, automobile products. Agricultural exports similarly.
This underlines a truism. The most important partner for the Welsh Government before and after Brexit should be the British Government. The closest cooperation and consultation should be routine, and should involve all the devolved administrations.
Future decisions on immigration will be pivotal for Wales. Despite the rhetoric of the referendum, immigrants play a vital role in Wales, in social care, the NHS, in our universities, the food industry, and much more. Their presence is a real contribution to the quality of Welsh life. This needs to continue.
A strong Welsh voice and greater influence in London is needed, on UK and international policies, and this voice should be better heeded. But post Brexit, projecting the Welsh voice globally becomes more necessary also. We need to tell the story loudly – an outward looking, very special Wales which should be more assertive post devolution.
There are many ways in which Wales is represented to the world. The arts, music, culture and audio-visual representations are powerful ambassadors for Wales. The Welsh universities underline the quality of our higher education and the research carried out, much of it in cooperation with international partners. We are well known for our sporting prowess, and not only rugby. Premier League Swansea City and the Wales football team’s recent 6-0 victory over China in Nanning promote Wales to a huge audience. Welsh business and tourism play their part, as do many other industries.
It is the internationally recognised state, the United Kingdom, which is the member of international organisations. This limits the possibilities for Wales. But every opportunity should be taken to ensure Welsh participation where it can be secured. Welsh universities want to maintain their participation in EU programmes. Creative Europe, another EU programme, is important for our cultural sector. Offices of the Welsh Government abroad can play a part, especially on economic issues, but they will have to establish a role in their host country. Wales must look for opportunities to make its influence felt. The lead and projection by politicians will be determinant if there is to be a concerted, stronger voice to defend Welsh interests externally as the opportunities and challenges of a post Brexit world emerge.
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