On Tuesday 17th January Prime Minister Theresa May made her long awaited speech on Britain leaving the European Union. The speech was supposed to set out what Brexit might actually mean beyond the empty rhetoric of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ or ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ or ‘hard Brexit’: it was supposed to tell us what might actually happen and how; what sort of deal May’s government would be seeking to make with the EU. The Herald was looking for clues as to what May’s Brexit would actually mean for Wales and, specifically, Ceredigion: would we get any idea of the shape of the future for our farmers and our universities, for instance? What reassurances would there be for EU nationals studying, working and living here? A number of our long-term Ceredigion residents are understandably troubled by the sudden insecurity of their situations. They are also upset by the political hostility towards them that they feel emanating from the Conservative government and a section of society. And what about our own citizens studying, working and living in the EU – or indeed those wishing to do so in future?
Gathering clues in May
Despite advocating the need for friendly and constructive negotiations, Theresa May stressed that ‘no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain’, indicating a willingness to revert to the UK trading with the EU on the terms of the World Trade Organisation. Her speech continued in that vein, setting out positions that, taken together, do amount to that which has been summarised as ‘hard Brexit’ or even ‘extreme Brexit’. The main points of her speech were then on the single market, the customs union, EU immigration, the status of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, the European Economic Area (EEA), a transitional deal, whether parliament will have a say, the timing for leaving, and the EU budget.
Let us first consider the more economic aspects of Theresa May’s speech. On the single market, May said she wanted to retain the ‘greatest possible access’, but Britain will leave the association of countries trading together without restrictions or tariffs because that free movement of goods, services and capital also means the free movement of labour. Free movement of labour means the possibility of virtually unrestricted migration from the EU into the UK, and national control over immigration is seen as having been key in the UK’s vote to ‘Leave’. So, Brexiteers will not countenance free movement of labour.
Theresa May was also clear that: ‘Full membership of the customs union prevents us from negotiating our own comprehensive trade deals,’ so the UK will leave and will have to pay negotiated external tariffs on its various imports to the EU. It looks unlikely that the UK will take the European Economic Area (EEA) option and join the European Free Trade Association (Efta) along with, for instance, Norway. In her speech May said: ‘We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries’, and she neither was she seeking partial or associate membership of the EU. On the EU budget, however, May admitted that the UK could choose to keep paying into ‘some specific European programmes in which we might want to participate’.
Moving on to social issues, as already highlighted, controlling immigration is a priority for Brexiteers and May pledged to ‘get control over the number of people coming to Britain from the EU’. However, she gave no indication of how this might be achieved while still attracting ‘the brightest and best to study and work in Britain’. This remains a have your cake and eat it conundrum. According to the Office for National statistics, net migration is at the second highest level on record at 335,000 for the year up to June 2016. This means 335,000 more people immigrated into the UK than emigrated. Net migration of EU citizens stood at 189,000. Some 82,000 of those EU migrants had not secured a job before entering the UK. For the first time in 2015, Romania topped the list with the most number of migrants to the UK at 54,000, while Polish migrants totalled 38,000. These are the figures that seemingly swayed a significant proportion of ‘Leave’ voters in June last year. Other migrants to the UK in 2015 included 44,000 Chinese and 36,000 Indian people.
Theresa May offered no reassurance on the rights of the three million EU citizens living in the UK. These people’s lives are apparently going to be used as bargaining chips by the British government in Brexit negotiations. On the other hand, May has stated that they want to secure the rights of UK citizens in the EU as soon as possible. Meanwhile, on a transitional deal to avoid uncertainty, including economic instability, she was quite clear about the timeframe. The Prime Minister wants agreement on a ‘permanent partnership’ to be reached within the two-year limit of the article 50 talks on leaving the EU. The implementation period was left open, however, as it depends on the complexities of that agreement. On the political front, the government seems committed to press ahead with triggering article 50 by the end of March. If, however, the Supreme Court rules that parliament must vote on triggering article 50, which it is expected to do later this month, then government plans will be in disarray at the first hurdle. In her speech Theresa May did commit to giving both houses of parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal when it has been negotiated.
‘Brexit will slit the wrists of the Welsh economy’
Mid and West Wales Labour AM and Former Minister for Europe in the House of Lords, Eluned Morgan said: ‘The PM’s pronouncement on BREXIT will slit the wrists of the Welsh economy and lead to a decade of instability for the UK. Most leading economists have recognised that leaving the single market will lead to a 5% shrinkage in the economy which will dramatically reduce public expenditure and have dire consequences for our hospitals and schools in Wales. The irresponsible action by the PM of tearing up the rule book in the hope that she will land something better is extremely high risk, in particular when we have so few experts to negotiate trade deals. The PM will need to land a new trade deal - not just with the EU but on leaving the Customs Union - with the 50 other countries with whom we trade. Welsh businesses will find no comfort in this speech, there is no assurance that we will not fall off a cliff edge within two years. This will hit investment and jobs hard. The tone of the speech will make it more difficult for us to recruit doctors and nurses to serve in our hospitals in Wales. There were no assurances for our poorest areas who have benefitted from EU investment in the past and no guarantees to farmers. Of course we should honour the result of the referendum, but there is more than one way to leave the EU: Theresa May has chosen the most damaging for our country.’
Hugely negative impact on Ceredigion
Ceredigion’s Lib Dem MP Mark Williams told the Herald: ‘The Prime Minister’s speech today will do nothing to reassure many of us in rural areas that the Government understands the needs of our communities. The announcement that, as the realities of Brexit start to bite, we will be pursuing a Hard Brexit, one that pulls us out of the European single market, will have a hugely negative impact on Ceredigion. Our farmers and farming unions have said again and again that membership of the single market, to be able to sell their produce across Europe, is one of the most important factors for their continued success, and to lose this could see many of our small family farms struggle to survive. There is little doubt that the multiplier effect for our communities of this could be significant. The Liberal Democrats will continue to stand up against a disastrous Brexit, and for our membership of the Single Market, to ensure a strong future for our farming sector, our rural communities, and the country as a whole.’
Extreme Brexit could destroy rural communities
Plaid Cymru MP, Liz Saville Roberts warned that the UK Government’s decision to pursue an extreme Brexit could destroy rural communities. The Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP spoke in a debate in the House of Commons on the effect of Brexit on the rural economy, highlighting the contribution that rural communities make ‘far beyond what is assumed’, and accused the Tories of using smoke and mirrors by suggesting leaving the single market won’t affect trading conditions. Wales accounts for around 5% of the UK population but receives 12% of the EU funds allocated to the UK countries and Ms Saville Roberts called for a commitment from the UK Government to maintain funding levels post-Brexit, as was promised in the referendum.
‘By leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, jobs, wages and fundamentally our communities are being put at risk in search of some right-wing, free market nirvana. Tory Brexiteers will label any challenge to their dogmatism as negative, but people are scared. The rural communities I represent are afraid that their whole way of life is about to be torn apart. And what hope is offered to them by the Prime Minister? Bland platitudes and soundbites. Rural communities need more than just lines crafted by some Government spin doctor. They need people in Westminster who understand what they do and are ready to fight their corner. Last year 60% of Welsh farms either made a loss or would have done so without EU support. As agriculture is intrinsic to rural communities, a threat to agriculture is a threat to the language, traditions and swathes of our cultural heritage. It is crucial that the UK Government honours the promises of Brexiteers that Wales will not lose a penny in EU subsidies once we leave.
‘As important as EU subsidies is our trade links with Europe. Ninety percent of Welsh food and drink exports go to the EU, as does a third of our lamb crop. It is therefore no surprise that the Farmers Union of Wales and the National Farmers Union Cymru, alongside many others, are unrelentingly calling for continued tariff free access to European markets. The smoke and mirrors of the Tories spin machine is laid bare when you begin to scratch away at their free-trade rhetoric. Within the EU we have the freest of trade. And we can continue to have it – quite simply by remaining members of the single market and customs union. If we slash and burn the support mechanisms we afford our already struggling farms and toss them on the Brexit bonfire, then we are not only risking our food supply but the future of our rural communities and the industries they support. Decisions need to be evidence-based, rather than the product of idealistic aspirations and clever sounding buzzwords. If Westminster wants to do to rural communities what they did to the miners, let them do so with their eyes open.’
Expressing his concerns for agriculture tourism in particular, Plaid Cymru mid and west AM, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Simon Thomas told us: ‘This week’s harsh speech by Theresa May has failed to take into account the economic needs of Wales and the devolved nature of the UK state. Wales may have voted narrowly to leave the European Union but people living in our nation did not vote for the economic vandalism of the Conservative government proposals to yank us out of the European Union. The mainly rural economy of west Wales will be hit hardest leaving the EU’s single market and customs union. Livestock producers particularly reliant on exports to the continent will find it very tough to survive as feasible businesses.’
Extremely ugly politics
David Hanlon, education officer for Ceredigion People’s Assembly, shared his initial personal response to the Prime Minister’s speech with the Herald: ‘In Brexit, Theresa May has identified the possibility of building a new electoral bloc around a core of xenophobic nationalists and City financiers. Obviously the kind of politics this core will call for will be extremely ugly. But at the same time we shouldn't overstate its strength: this is a combustible mix that will be difficult to hold together even in the short term. This new bloc will have to be mobilized around a strategy for getting investment going again, and that strategy is clearly to turn the UK into a tax haven. This means first of all an all-out assault on what the Davos crowd calls "non-tariff barriers", i.e. any remaining vestiges of the post-war social democratic settlement and all worker and environmental protections. Strategies of accumulation of this kind always give rise to problems that require political management: what are these likely to be? No doubt they'll be numerous, and we'll be in for yet more surprises, but I'll wager on two.
‘Firstly, we can expect mobilizations behind calls for fiscal independence or outright secession from Westminster, not just from the historical heartlands of separatism and devolution but also from within England. Secondly, some sectors of business in the UK will be appalled by May's plans and will kick back. If that kick back comes from powerful elements in the City and any of the big retailers, May will find herself on shaky ground and this will be an opportunity for oppositional forces to push her project backwards.
‘CPA are in the midst of polling members’ opinions on ways forward this year in the light of Hard Brexit. Proposals include: an education campaign on the history of possible futures of citizenship in the UK; a citizen journalism project; moving to resist further attacks on our councils from central government and in turn put a stop to further privatisation and council cuts; a campaign to provide a solidarity network for people on benefits. Other future actions may include campaigns to stop further privatisation of the railways and a project in which disused buildings are used as dwellings or a community centre. Our organisational capacity certainly can’t pursue all these areas but members will decide which are most urgent and achievable in 2017.
‘So what's the way forward for progressives in Ceredigion? Broadly speaking, I think we should continue the work of protecting our social fabric and environment through the building of networks of defence. On the social front, May's project requires social relations of low quality, especially relations that are structured by racist logics. Merely by improving the quality of our social relations - strengthening trade unions, engaging in anti-racist struggles, forging ties of solidarity with refugees and so on - we contribute to building an environment in which Hard Brexit cannot survive. The red lines on May’s Brexit are clear: freedom of movement, refugee and immigrant solidarity, and absolute and unyielding anti-racism. CPA would urge everyone to get involved with Aberaid and our local Hope Not Hate branch.’
‘Take back control’
Unsurprisingly, UKIP’s mid and West Wales AM Neil Hamilton was at odds with the views of our other respondents: ‘Theresa May was saying much of what UKIP has been saying for many years. I was very pleased to hear she now recognises that Britain must leave the single market and control immigration from the European Union. She was, however, unclear on whether Britain will continue to belong to the customs union. Belonging to it could mean we could still be unable to negotiate our own free trade agreements across the world. The Welsh people voted to ‘take back control’ and so staying in it would not be acceptable. She also had no plan for taking back control of our fishing waters, for example. As Home Secretary Theresa May always talked tough but failed to deliver. She has to deliver this time and UKIP will hold the government’s feet to the fire on delivering the Brexit the people of Wales voted for.’
Although Theresa May’s speech was predominantly intended to set out an initial negotiating position and we may see many changes to the positions she outlined over the coming years of uncertainty, it is clear from the responses of the majority of our respondents that things do not look good for Ceredigion. The fundamentals of the government’s stance indicated that our farmers, in particular, should be very concerned about their economic future. Meanwhile, May’s speech contained no specific assurance to the higher education sector. The overall tone of the speech on migration was worrying, however. And there was no assurance on the rights of EU nationals studying, working and living here. While the majority of our political representatives look set to resist May’s Extreme Brexit through our parliaments, David Hanlon gives some timely pointers as to what those who want to preserve human and workers’ rights, defend environmental legislation, counter racism and continue to keep a meaningful welcome in Ceredigion’s hillsides can do. By most of the accounts that we have gathered here, to do nothing as part of our community means endorsing economic and social disaster for Ceredigion and beyond.