The uncertainty and instability of the past year has been compounded by the chaos at the heart of the Tory government in Westminster. It is a mark of wonder for any interested observer that the nationalist and nostalgic approach they had taken on Brexit remains unchecked following a disastrous general election result in June. The Welsh Labour government I lead continues to take a more pragmatic approach, which both respects the referendum result and also seeks to always put the economy first.
The morning after the referendum result, we presented a six point plan to ensure that Brexit would work for Wales, and for the whole UK. It was fair to say that it was greeted with raised eyebrows in some quarters – particularly amongst that group who thinks anyone who supported a Remain vote must now sit silently by whilst the brave Brexiteers finish the job. This is poppycock of course, and in fact our plan has since been further developed into a White Paper and is probably the closest thing the UK has to a realistic negotiating position.
Our pragmatic approach balances concerns over immigration with the economic reality that makes participation in the single market central to the UK’s future prosperity. One of the most tedious parlour games played out across the media in recent months is the argument about what is meant by “membership” of the single market – it has long been my view that only EU Member States can be described as full members, because they are the only ones who can set the rules. After that you get into different forms of arguments about different forms of membership, access, or European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association models.
None of this is remotely helpful or illuminating for the voting public, or businesses looking for clarity. That is why the Welsh Labour approach has always centred on our desire to have “full and unfettered” access to the single market – we must be open-minded about how that is achieved – including looking at a model of access similar to Norway. This is entirely consistent with the “jobs first” approach being articulated by Keir Starmer and the Labour team in Westminster, with whom we work very closely.
Our approach to Brexit differs markedly to the one being taken by the Tory government to date, and I believe it may well command wider support across the UK. We’re all about keeping things on the table – that’s what negotiating should be about. The Tories don’t even seem to be keen on having a table.
It is this hard-headed message I took to Michel Barnier when I met with him in Brussels earlier this month. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate that there are parts of the UK that are prepared to engage constructively with the EU-27, rather than simply indulge in playing to the gallery.
Our friends and neighbours in Europe will continue to be our friends and neighbours after we leave the EU, and we need to find a way forward together to address our common challenges. It is in no-one’s interest, least of all of those of us who passionately want to maintain the closest economic ties with our European neighbours, for there to be no deal, or a hugely painful rupture between the UK and the EU. As I said to Mr Barnier, we will do all we can to prevent this.
There are challenges closer to home to contend with first, however. While leaving the EU is the biggest peacetime political challenge that has faced the UK since the Second World War, it also offers the opportunity to reinvent and strengthen the Union. My approach to Brexit has always been about bringing people together to try to find common ground. We have put forward constructive proposals about how we can deliver a Brexit that honours the result of the referendum, safeguards the economy and respects devolution.
I have presented our blueprint for a major constitutional renewal of the UK, which can meet the challenges Brexit poses for the devolved nations and the future governance of the country as a whole. It is an important step forward in the work which we must undertake together with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to map our collective future.
Despite our constructive contribution – of the kind the Prime Minister apparently favours – we have been ignored on the constitutional agenda. The EU Withdrawal Bill represents a crass power-grab which will undermine two decades of devolution with the stroke of a pen in Whitehall. This approach makes little sense, especially when you consider that Wales was able to exert important influence in relation to an agreed approach on post-EU funding and transitional arrangements. To then ignore us when it comes to devolution and powers seems indescribably dull.
The UK should be entering Brexit negotiations from a position of unity so we have the best possible chance of securing a good deal with the interests of all parts of the UK at its heart. Instead, the government appears determined to provoke a constitutional conflict we do not need.
We want to help the UK government to find a way out of the mess in which they find themselves, and will come to the table constructively to agree the UK frameworks which will be necessary when the UK leaves the EU. We have simply said that this must be done by agreement, not through imposition. With 67 per cent of Welsh exports going to the EU – rising to 90 per cent in terms of food – we obviously have a right as a nation to get a deal that will work for our businesses and communities.
If the Bill is not amended, there is no prospect of the Welsh Labour government recommending the National Assembly should give legislative consent to it. Our model of devolution has won, tested and developed through various elections and referenda, and we will explore ways we can use our existing legislative powers to help defend that progress.
This is not about frustrating Brexit. The UK is leaving the EU. But that does not mean we need to sabotage our economy and isolate ourselves from the rest of Europe.
After all, why fall off a cliff when you can walk over a bridge?