Why we must reject the British Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill

Hywel Williams sets out Plaid Cymru’s concerns about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

The EU Withdrawal Bill, or the Repeal Bill as it is known, will ensure that every power that is repatriated from the EU will go straight to Westminster, even when those powers are in areas which are fully the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales (and the other devolved parliaments).

The latest devolution dispensation – the Wales Act 2017 – ensures that everything that is not listed as a reserved matter should be the responsibility of the National Assembly. So any new powers transferred from the EU that are not explicitly listed as reserved in the Wales Act should naturally come to Wales. But the Repeal Bill will ensure that Westminster grabs these powers.

The Labour Party (in Wales at least) seem to agree with Plaid Cymru that this is unacceptable, although Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow Labour MPs seem less interested.

Many might dismiss Plaid Cymru’s concerns, thinking: “they would say that,”. So I want to set out why it is right that we reject this power grab and vote against the Repeal Bill.

This article is a deconstruction of the economically and constitutionally focussed arguments used by those who are instigating, perpetuating and sympathising with the power grab. The UK Government is pursuing a strategy that disregards the fundamentals of the modern UK constitution and economic wellbeing of the citizens it purports to represent.

The Economy

The entire premise on which the UK Government balances its argument is false. That is, the management and continuation of the recently invented UK ‘single market’.

The term ‘single market’ has only recently found its way into the popular political lexicon. The British variant – rather than its usual EU flavour – is even newer.

I am not questioning the historical existence of such a market; just that the promotion of the concept and phrase, ‘UK single market’, is a recent phenomenon.

We could assume that this is an innocent transposition and use of a concept that is current – a concept that has relevance and resonance. Unfortunately, it is not.

The recent up-turn in the use of the phrase ‘UK single market’ is a way to ensure that the UK can justify its constitutional meddling through a seemingly non-political economic means.

The argument goes that any rules that were once decided at an EU level must first be decided by Westminster, as giving anything to the various devolved administrations will impair the capacity to create a coherent framework for the UK’s economic market to function.

This is an outmoded, outdated and fundamentally wrong understanding of how a UK-wide, post-Brexit economy will work. Let’s look at why:  

Incompetence or malice – implied assumptions about the devolved administrations

There is an implied assumption that the devolved institutions will, by accident or design, undermine the UK-wide market. By assuming a need to centralise ‘before’ devolving, the UK Government assumes that the institutions to which they will devolve will not be able to create a framework for a functioning market, or that they would proactively seek to undermine such a creation.

There is, therefore, either an assumption in Whitehall that the devolved administrations are incompetent, or more bizarrely, an assumption that they will seek to actively harm the economy of their respective countries by scuppering the development of a working market. The latter approach would be bad politics, as much as it is bad economics. With this in mind, let’s remove the latter as a possibility.

The former assumption however opens up a new set of questions – why are the devolved administrations not equipped to deal with this change? How do the other dozens of federal or quasi-federal countries work if they are already in this situation? What is stopping the UK Government working with the devolved administrations to create these frameworks before we reach the economic/constitutional cliff edge Brexit has created?

Despite these questions, the deductions made to reveal them also leads us to another conclusion: In the context of the Brexit process, the UK Government either does not have the confidence or the capacity to make the current devolved system work.

If it looks like centralisation, smells like centralisation and taste likes centralisation then…

On the Boy Scout promise of the British Government we are told that it is just a matter of time before the new powers then trickle down to Wales and the other devolved parliaments. Westminster comes first, Wales later – all for the common good. There is however a troubling logical inconsistency here.

If everything is decided at Westminster before it comes to Wales, what will there be left to decide? If these rigid frameworks are necessary for a functioning UK single market, what scope for devolution will be left after everything has been decided?

In reality, any ‘new’ powers are likely to be implementation powers – that is, the ability to enact and enforce decisions made at Westminster. That goes against the fundamental principle of devolution – our ability to democratically decide a different path.

The EU Single Market is dead, long live the UK single market

Now let’s indulge ourselves for a moment and make the same leap of faith as Ms May and assume leaving the EU Single Market is the best option for the UK economy. Why then is this UK single market so critical to Britain’s economic future?

Whether leaving the EU Single Market is the right thing to do or not, the Government’s current position is illogical. To conflate the economic relationships between the nations of the UK with the economic relationships between EU nation states and then take diametrically opposed positions as to how they should be organised makes no sense.

To put it another way, to talk about the UK’s market and the EU’s market in the same terms and then say it is good economic sense to wholeheartedly embrace one, whilst it is better for us to reject the other, is not consistent or logical.

As my party colleagues and I have been at pains to highlight, I reject the entire premise of this point – I do not believe it is best for the UK to leave the EU Single Market and I do not believe that the UK’s economy is comparable to it. However, by proactively conflating the two, the UK Government has walked into an illogical and inconsistent position of their own making.

Political, constitutional and legal experts alike are in agreement that the ‘Repeal Bill’ is a barefaced bid to take back control from Wales. The UK Government will contrive to make this power grab an administrative matter. Shrouded in economic arguments they will claim that there is no alternative. But this is not true.

The Westminster Government’s illogical, contradictory and flimsy justifications for imposing this Bill on Wales only serves to reinforce the sense of disdain they have for devolution. My party and I will never accept such a wilful attack on Welsh democracy and it is for this reason that my party will be voting against this Bill.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Hywel Williams is Plaid Cymru’s Brexit spokesperson in the House of Commons. He has been the MP for Arfon (or Caernarfon pre-2010) since 2001 and before entering politics, he worked as a mental health social worker and later as a lecturer and consultant in the fields of social policy, social work and social care.

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