Five years of Brexit trauma
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the referendum that determined the United Kingdom would leave the European after 46 years of membership.
For all the talk of ‘Getting Brexit Done’ it would take another four years to complete that process – a process that seemed to consolidate a latent divide in society that the referendum itself had exposed and exacerbated.
It divided families, communities, political parties and the UK itself – nation from nation, region from region. The ensuing four years did nothing to lessen that division, involving as it did some of the bitterest Parliamentary debates in history. Only an unprecedented pandemic diverted Brexit’s accumulating consequences from our gaze.
It forced the resignation of two Conservative Prime Ministers – David Cameron and Theresa May, and saw the departure from Parliament’s Conservative benches of many big beasts of the European cause – Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Nicholas Soames, Anna Soubry, to mention but four.
Theresa May, stretched on a rack only partly of her own making, was faced with a party that she could not command and an opposition she could not befriend.
With nowhere to turn, she called the first of two general elections. In June 2017 she lost her majority, leaving her to the not-so-tender tender mercies of the DUP.
The second election – called by her successor, and to which the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders unwisely acquiesced – gave Johnson a triumphant majority of 80, allowing him to create a Conservative government shorn of any small-c conservative tendency.
On the other side of the house, that second election also brought an end to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Corbyn, who had tried unsuccessfully to mask his long-standing opposition to our membership of the EU, was succeeded by Keir Starmer who tried rather more successfully to mask his erstwhile support for it.
Those who devoutly wish that the new leader put his stamp on the Labour Party have had to dig deep into their reserves of patience.
Those five years were, in soccer parlance, a game of two halves, albeit uneven ones. In the first – from the referendum until early 2019 – the Government had to bow to the Supreme Court’s insistence that Parliament, and not only the government, had a role in initiating the whole process. The government had also to determine a negotiating position for an outcome that even the tousle-haired leader of the Brexit campaign had thought unlikely.
That half ended in July 2019 with the resignation of Theresa May, exhausted by the resignations of David Davis, Dominic Raab and, eventually, her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, not to mention massive defeats in what were termed ‘meaningful votes’ on the floor of the Commons.
Deadlines for concluding the agreed two-year negotiating period came and went, before the new Prime Minister attempted to prorogue Parliament in a bid to avoid crucial votes. The Supreme Court again came to Parliament’s rescue, for which it may yet be punished with a curtailment of its powers. Executives usually prefer to be all-powerful.
A month later – after a third extension of the negotiating deadline, his legal duty reluctantly done and his majority secure – Johnson proferred the Withdrawal Bill for Royal Assent on 23 January 2020. A week later we left the EU, albeit to enjoy a testy 11-month transition period that ended on 31 December. Precisely one month later, on 31st January, the UK’s first Coronavirus case was confirmed.
Even after four years of Brexit wrangling, overlain with nearly 18-months of the constraints and anxieties of a pandemic, all opinion research tells us that the country remains divided on the issue of Europe. Faced with a UK Government that seems to have a continued need for Brexit as an energising prop, our former European partners swing between irritation and boredom.
But what of the consequences of Brexit for own country? What is the reality that hides behind the rhetoric of global Britain?
Are we a more global Wales than we were when, as members of the EU, we enjoyed decades of inward investment from Europe and America and Japan? Will we be a more global Wales when a deal with Australia has done existential damage to Wales’s farmers and their exports? Will we be a more global Wales if a proposed deal on steel imports undercuts our own steel industry?
What kind of lack of awareness allows ministers to boast that the new deal with Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein (population smaller than Caerphilly) “will limit unnecessary paperwork” and “allow goods to move seamlessly across borders”, while at the same time employing between 40-50,000 additional customs staff to man our own borders.
And lets not mention the logistical costs of the new border in the Irish sea needed to honour the Good Friday agreement.
And all this before mentioning the effects on the governance of our own country.
The Welsh Government, despite its belief that Brexit is a grievous mistake, has striven valiantly and consistently to raise with the UK Government the financial and constitutional implications of Brexit. As a government of unionist persuasion it has, arguably, made a more constructive contribution to that debate than the Scottish Government.
It has also begun to adapt its international strategy, even if one could argue there is further to go. It has kept better avenues – two-way not one-way – open to the young people of the world than has the UK Government. And yet, many UK Government ministers still do little to disguise their belief that devolution was a mistake – that its emasculation will be one of the intrinsic benefits of Brexit.
Given the bleak economic forecasts, one could say that unity in adversity is much to be desired, but creating adversity in order to create unity is a bizarre strategy, and bludgeoning a voluntary union into a unitary state stranger still.
Is there, therefore, no consensus on anything? Yes, there is – that a reversal of Brexit is not going to happen anytime soon. But accepting that fact does not mean accepting every aspect of the status quo.
It does not mean that we should shrug our shoulders when we see the dysfunctionality of our current relationship with the EU – an obvious failure of diplomacy and an abandonment of a previously lauded British pragmatism.
It does not mean we must accept that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is adequate to all our country’s needs – not least its total silence on our massive service sector. It does not mean that our farming sector has to play second fiddle in every new trade deal we make.
Accepting Brexit does not mean that we have to treat those EU citizens that wish to remain here with a lack of care and humanity. Neither does it mean we must retain barriers to human and cultural exchange that, in the past, have enriched our arts as well as creating our global credentials.
Accepting Brexit does not require us continually to exasperate 27 European countries that were once and must always be our closest allies. And accepting Brexit now does not mean that the aspiration to join hands once again with our neighbours is unworthy or foolish in this wonderful but dangerous world.
Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of Wales for Europe