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1 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

Hard Brexit threatens Welsh steel – but Port Talbot’s Leavers have no regrets

Inside a town inextricably linked to the health of the steel industry.

By Felipe araujo

Step into any pub in Port Talbot, and you are bound to find a punter who either is, or used to be a steel worker.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the fortunes of this Welsh town of 40,000 have been inextricably linked to the health of the steel industry. Tata Steel, the Indian giant who owns the local steel plant, employs 10 percent of the population here. 

But this is also an area that in June 2016 voted to leave the European Union by a 56 percent majority. Two years after that vote, locals have no regrets.

“There’s a price to pay for going in, there is a price to pay for coming out,” says John Jones, a taxi driver who was a steel worker for 20 years. “I personally voted to come out, because I’m not happy with the way we have been treated and the amount of money that’s going into Europe from Britain. We are hard-working people and I think we deserve to keep out.”

In many ways, Port Talbot, a Labour hinterland, is a microcosm of that much-talked about working-class fury. People here feel neglected and ignored by the London political establishment. In early 2016, this came to a head. After China flooded the global market with cheap steel, Tata announced it was cutting 1,000 jobs, including 750 at Port Talbot. The crisis prompted a debate about why a government that was willing to bail out the banks could not do the same for British steel.

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For disgruntled steel workers in Port Talbot, the Brexit vote was their chance to get the people at the top — and the national media — to listen. In a bitter irony, they are also the ones who stand to lose the most from Brexit. 

For decades, Wales has benefited from generous European subsidies, which have gone towards a variety of projects, from sports and education, to farming and culture. But most importantly, the local steel industry and its workers have enjoyed the protection of EU labour laws and safety standards, as well as barriers to unfair competition from other countries. If a hard Brexit comes to fruition, those protections will no longer apply.

As some in the Conservative party salivate over the prospect of signing free-trade deals all over the world, residents in Port Talbot worry that countries like China might use the opportunity to dump cheap steel onto the UK market.

Anthony Taylor was at the steelworks for 39 years. He also served as Port Talbot’s mayor from 2007 to 2008. A Remainer, he tells me a hard Brexit would be disastrous for the local economy. 

“We are going to have to compete in markets that we are not big enough to compete in,” he says. “It’s OK to say we will take back control, but control of what? It makes me a bit a nervous to see ministers going around the world trying to sign trade deals with anybody and everybody. It doesn’t look good.”

Last month, Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, expressed caution over signing individual trade deals with other countries, saying it’s “hugely important that we get the trading relationship with Europe right”.

“At the moment we have access to that market which means we don’t have to pay any tariffs, we don’t face any barriers. Why would we want to put barriers where none exist?” he said at the launch of a new paper on trade policy. 

Crashing out of Europe without a meaningful trade deal in place would spell disaster for Welsh industries, particularly steel, according to an economic impact analysis conducted by the Cardiff Business School.

“At the moment, the EU does slap some fairly significant tariffs on steel commodity imports into Europe,” says Max Munday, who co-authored the study. “Were we to come out of the European Union and start signing trade deals with other countries on a World Trade Organisation basis, there could be more free flow of steel imports into the UK, which could damage our domestic industry prospects.”

Port Talbot’s economy has been struggling for a long time, way before the June 2016 vote. The rows of boarded-up shops on the high street a painful reminder of a bygone era. The steelworks too have been on the decline, but a hard Brexit could signify the death knell for an industry known for its ability to survive. On Friday, Theresa May will brief the country on the type of Brexit the government is going to pursue. For people like Taylor, the former mayor and Remainer, there can only be one way. 

“I would like her to say we will be part of the customs union of some sort or another,” he says. “I listened to the speech that Jeremy Corbyn made, which is so ambiguous as to be unbelievable. We don’t know where we stand with either political party, they are too busy posturing. They should be out there negotiating and trying to get the best deal for the British people.”

And yet, customs union, single market, hard Brexit, soft Brexit all seem too abstract to describe the mood in Port Talbot, where people have felt worlds apart from the London bubble for so long. Those Leavers I speak to still seem to be riding the emotional high that led them to split from Europe in the summer of 2016, enamoured with a nostalgic nationalist rhetoric. 

“British products, like German products, are known worldwide as a class act,” said David Ellis at the Pig Iron pub, one of the meeting points for the town’s steel men. “India, China, look at the products they make. The world will always want British-made goods.”