Geraint Talfan Davies says that at some point the public will need to weigh up any Brexit deal.
Scarcely a week goes by at the moment without another conference on the possible consequences of Britain’s impending departure from the EU. The latest was held at Swansea University’s new Bay Campus, built with several skips of money from the EU and the European Investment Bank that, even so, were not enough to prevent the city as a whole from voting narrowly to Leave last June. Such conferences can seem repetitive, but they are essential to grow civil society’s understanding of the hidden complexities that lay ahead.
The Swansea conference was notable for four things: a contribution from the Welsh Finance Minister, Mark Drakeford, that was a clearer statement on priorities than anything we have yet heard from the UK Government; an impassioned account of the dangers that lie ahead, from Hywel Ceri Jones, a former head of economic and social policy at the European Commission; an underlining of the legal obstacles the Brexit process has yet to surmount from a professor of international law; and continued evidence of the tactical dilemma that Remainers face in opposing the still imprecise Brexit agenda.
Mark Drakeford outlined 10 priorities for the Welsh Government, half of which would have come as no surprise: full and unfettered access to the single market; preservation of as much free movement of people as possible to safeguard its value to such things as the NHS and higher education; confirmation of the permanent status of EU nationals already resident here; guaranteed continuation of the current level of EU funding to Wales; and full maintenance of current social and environmental protections.
These five aims are clearly designed to define as soft a Brexit as possible, leading inexorably to a sixth priority which is for a new focus on transitional arrangements – as close as possible to the status quo – to avoid any cliff edge, particularly for business, while longer term agreements are put in place.
The remaining four priorities have to do with process, powers and with our future approach to Europe. The first of the quartet is a demand not only for the full involvement of the Welsh Government and the other devolved administrations in shaping the UK Government’s view, but also for direct participation by the devolved governments in any negotiations that impact on devolved responsibilities. In Mark Drakeford’s words, “We must be in the room.”
He thought that this was no more than a matter of applying the current practice of having ministers from the devolved adminsitrations present when things such as agriculture, the environment or fisheries are discussed. This, he thought, was essential to the delivery of the next priority, “unambiguous continuation of devolved responsibilities.”
Scotland, Wales and Northern ireland do not want repatriated powers in any area of currently devolved responsibilities to be shunted into sidings in Whitehall and Westminster. Instead, they should come direct to the devolved governments who could themelves decide whether any powers should be pooled anew.
On current evidence there will be some resistance to this non-Westminster presence from the UK Government and from MPs whose notions of Parliamentary sovereignty are still stuck in a pre-devolution era. This is why Mr Drakeford put forward a further priority – a commitment to re-drawing the relationship between the different parts of the UK. There are clearly concerns in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast lest Brexit lead to a de facto re-centralisation of UK government. Otherwise, post-Brexit, Westminster’s hand will certainly feel heavier than Brussel’s.
Mark Drakeford’s final priority was as much a challenge to his fellow citiziens as to government. We are not leaving Europe, he said. But in order to preserve a powerful voice for Wales at the European level, Wales would need to be assiduous at all levels in involving itself in European networks. We would need to work hard to mobilise friends, particularly against the backdrop of Britain’s reputation in Europe having been “curdled” by the Conservative Party.
There was no dissent from this list from the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, who shared the platform. She thought there was no mandate for a ‘hard Brexit.’ Her emphasis was more on the need for a plan for Wales for the post-2020 period although, further ahead, the party’s aim for renewed membership of the EU would remain.
It would not be unfair to characterise much of the debate as being about making the best of a bad job – minimising economic and social damage. One questioner asked whether the only way to achieve all these aims was to stay in the EU – in one sense a restatement of the view of the President of the EU, Donald Tusk, who has said that the only real choice is between hard Brexit or no Brexit.
The question exposes the understandable nervousness of elected politicians of a Remain persuasion when faced with the suggestion of a further referendum. Although Mark Drakeford is an Assembly Member for a constituency in Cardiff – a city that voted more heavily for Remain than London – most Labour MPs and AMs and some of Plaid Cymru’s MPs sit for constituencies that voted Leave, in some cases very heavily.
Their dilemma is likely to be sharpened by Sir John Major’s statement last week that there is “a perfectly credible case for a second referendum,” and the predictable but ludicrous obloquy heaped upon him by outraged Brexiteers.
The case against even mentioning the possibility of another referendum at present is simply that it is still too close to the June event, that little is still known about the government’s negotiating objectives, and not enough has changed since June in terms of broad public opinion, or according to some, objective economic circumstances. Remainers, not least those who are elected representatives, have to be very wary of any charge of acting undemocratically.
But Sir John – who has a cricket obsessive’s sense of fair play – is right for other reasons. Through the referendum the Leave side has earned the right to seek satisfactory terms for our departure and a future arm’s length relationship. But the closeness of the vote has not given it the right to impose any solution, regardless of the content and consequences of the deal. The complexity of the issues – economic, social and constitutional, not to mention peace and stability – meant that many voters on both sides of the argument will have felt considerable ambivalence while casting their votes. That is one basis for Sir John’s warning against the ‘tyranny of a majority’.
For instance, many on the Leave side voted thinking that it would still be possible to stay in the single market and avoid adverse economic consquences. Many on the Remain side feared the economic consequences of leaving the EU while also harbouring many reservations about the union’s structures and policies. For many the 52-48 split was there in different proportions within each person.
In June the country voted by a narrow margin to move house, without specifying what sort of house it was now looking for, or knowing what was available in other neighbourhoods, or even whether prices elsewhere were affordable. Meanwhile its bank manager told the nation last week that its bank balance was going to get worse, and there was fat chance of any improvement in its circumstances for the best part of a decade. He may not have been able to give us a totally reliable guide to our future earnings, but is helping us to fill out our own risk register. When things are clearer will we not want to ring the solicitor and tell him/her whether or not to proceed?
Now may not be the time to decide how the matter will be settled, but further down the line – in 18 months or two years or three years – the whole country will be able to stand back and look objectively at its options. Our economy will have moved on, or backwards. The world will have moved on. We will know the shape of new governments in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. We will have a better measure of the temper and policies of Preident Trump. We will know whether Vladimir Putin’s preference is for continued provocation or a new prudence. We will have a better sense of an updated balance of risks, even if we do not all agree.
Adam Price, while respecting the June outcome, made an important point at the conference about language. Talk of a second referendum ties a future event too closely to the one just gone. The next referendum, whose timing can only be dimly perceived, will be a different event.
At the Swansea conference the sensible point was made that the vote to leave the European Union is just as important as the vote to join. It needs the same depth of detailed study by Parliament and, in all probability, the same degree of legitimation by the electorate. We should keep reminding ourselves of that fact.