Borders Are Not the Answer to Global Challenges

Sebastian Bench argues that times of crises bring into sharp reality what Welsh independence and Brexit will entail.

In these most testing of times, we find out who we really are.

Who we are as people, as communities, as nations. Everything superfluous is stripped away as we protect what we value most and discover what really matters. 

We’re swiftly shown just how much we rely on the commitment, compassion and significant talents of those giving everything on the front line of our NHS to save lives. We’re prompted to consider our distinctions between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled workers when we ask so many supposedly ‘unskilled’ former social care workers to return to the profession in our time of need.

In even some of our darkest times we are reminded of the quiet good in society as communities steadfastly stay home to help save the lives of those they’ll never meet.

So much of Wales’ national conversation in more normal times is focused on Wales’ future and constitutional status. These discussions quickly seem like an indulgent distraction in a crisis. Yet it is precisely for moments like this that constitutions and governance must work. 

When public services are at breaking point and lives are on the line, abstract debates about independence and unionism can seem frivolous. When things are this tough, people just want to know how governments will keep them safe and save as many lives as possible. Yet it is in these moments when public services are most in need of governance that helps, not hinders their efforts.

Arguments for independence, federalism or unionism must be able to weather storms like this. Proponents of each must be able to look the Welsh people in the eye and honestly tell them that their favoured system would be best placed to guide Wales through weeks and months the likes of which we’re about to experience. 

Many of the arguments against independence focus on the value of having the pooled resources of the UK to call on. That can certainly be a persuasive argument in times like this. Although I should note the legitimate criticism that Wales doesn’t see its fair share of these pooled resources in normal times, especially when it comes to infrastructure. 

Crises like Coronavirus can easily make discussions over national borders seem arbitrary.

Coronavirus is already imposing economic catastrophe upon Wales. Businesses across Wales are on the brink of collapse. Hundreds of thousands of workers have already been furloughed, whilst others have lost their jobs altogether.

Wales has rightly looked to the UK Government to devote the immense resources necessary to stave off this economic catastrophe. Doubtless we will be happy to look to the UK Government for further resources should it prove necessary. In devolved areas, the Welsh Government has already proved willing and capable of replicating UK Government schemes.

Supporters of independence will have to convince people that an independent Wales would be fully capable of supporting its own economy in these circumstances. Would an independent Wales be able to take on the levels of debt required to produce this kind of fiscal injection into the economy? Would it be able to secure the investment and produce the economic growth necessary to repay these debts?

Perhaps it would, but it is not an easy argument to make. The human costs of being unable to provide this level of economic support in a crisis are severe.

At this stage, it’s impossible to theorise what relationship an independent Wales would have with the rest of the UK. However, it’s clear that an independent Wales would not be able to tackle a pandemic like this on its own. All four health systems across the UK face severe and very similar issues.

However, the reliance of patients at several stages of the England-Wales border on emergency care in English hospitals would render an independent Wales unable to properly care for all its citizens. Any independent Wales would have to ensure its NHS was self-sufficient and that it had the economy necessary to sustain it. 

Crises like Coronavirus can easily make discussions over national borders seem arbitrary. So many of the most pressing issues we face are truly global. A pandemic doesn’t respect national borders any more than climate change does. Erecting borders tends to mean erecting barriers. In an age where co-operation is so clearly needed to overcome our most daunting challenges, this seems counter-productive.

In few areas is this better illustrated than medical research. For all President Trump’s deeply immoral efforts to secure a future Coronavirus vaccine solely for the US, the life sciences and medical research industry is a truly global one.

Funding is pooled and scientists from around the world are brought in to work on the most important projects. And of course, the fruits of their labour are shared with the world. Whoever first develops a Coronavirus vaccine, every corner of our globe will have access to it. Every country will be kept safe by it. For just as viruses do not respect national borders, neither can vaccines.

This makes it even more puzzling that just weeks ago the UK Government was firmly committing to taking the UK out of the European Medicines Agency. It was never clear why the Prime Minister wanted to remove our access to a programme that helps give us better medicines faster.

It is a programme we will only have to replicate ourselves at significant cost. The only benefits of such a move appear to be a cleaner, purer form of Brexit.

Today, such considerations appear trivial and foolish. At the end of this year we’re supposed to leave the transition period and all the EU’s institutions. When we leave the European Medicines Agency then we expect to still be waiting and hoping for a vaccine to stop this pandemic. Can we honestly tell ourselves we’ll be in a better place to help develop, deliver and approve a vaccine in a new year than we are today?

Perhaps this speaks to issues of Brexit and our future relationship with Europe more widely. Many of the arguments against Welsh independence I stated earlier could easily be just as effective arguments against Brexit. Or at least effective arguments for a close future relationship with the EU now that we have left.

Coronavirus may have bought freedom of movement sharply to a stop, but the capacity to call upon the help of a greater number of friends and allies can be invaluable. This crisis has put paid to the myth that we had no control of our borders as members of the EU.

It has also highlighted painfully clearly that romanticised visions of sovereignty are ineffective against truly global crises requiring commitment, conviction and cooperation from the international community. 

It’s far too early to know just how devastating Coronavirus will be for Wales. How many people it will kill and how many other lives will be destroyed in its wake. Coronavirus will potentially lead us to fundamentally reshape our societies, from the role of the state in the economy to the way we value our health services and all who keep them going. 

Perhaps, at the end of it all, Coronavirus will solidify support for the status quo in some crucial ways. Perhaps Wales will be more reluctant to go it alone and leave the UK. And perhaps the UK will also be wistful for the comfort and security of a union it has already left.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Sebastian Bench is the Media and Policy Officer for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, although he writes here in a personal capacity.

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