Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon
The four-year-long saga over our place in Europe now feels like a different era altogether. Brexit is now boring, a sideshow to the global pandemic that has changed our world beyond recognition.
But Brexit is still happening. While negotiations have been stalling in the background over the last few months, Brexit will come back to the forefront today in a meeting between the Prime Minister and the Presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament.
Today is Boris Johnson’s chance to show flexibility and compromise. With the UK on the verge of what could be the deepest recession in centuries, he must do everything in his power to avoid further disruption. But talks have barely progressed since March, and huge gaps remain on level playing field provisions, aspects of governance, the border in Ireland, and no sign of any agreement on fisheries. We clearly need more time.
I tabled a motion calling for an extension to the transition on 13 March, winning the support of a wide range of sensible MPs who agreed that ideology should be put aside in order to deal with the pandemic. But instead of doing the sensible thing, the UK Government are doubling down, determined to force a quick rupture, regardless of the consequences.
They seem to believe that the disruption caused by the pandemic will hide the additional problems caused by crashing out without a trade deal. I fear that they also see the crisis as an opportunity to chart a radically different course in the recovery, ‘free’ of EU rules on workers’ rights and environmental standards. It is trivial to Mr Johnson that this would be in clear breach of the commitments he himself made in the deal he agreed with the EU a mere six months ago.
The disaster capitalists are now in charge and they’re gambling that the combined shocks caused by covid-19 and no trade deal will allow them to reassemble the broken pieces into a radically different political and economic system. Their friends will be hedging billions of pounds on a crash-out Brexit which will be an unmitigated disaster for Wales.
While France, the Netherlands and – crucially for us – Ireland have adapted their ports and largely implemented their customs models, the UK Government has instead decided to implement only a “light-touch regime”. This will risk turning the UK into the dumping ground of Europe, while our goods will still face full checks as they enter the EU. This is possibly the worst of both worlds.
What are the UK Government blaming for their utter lack of preparation? Predictably, they blame the virus. Despite covid-19 affecting all European countries, the UK is the only government that blames covid-19 for its failure over customs.
The pandemic also adds another worrying dimension to the negotiations. Three-quarters of the 7,000 registered medicines and more than half of the consumable clinical items used in the UK come from, or via, the EU. Crashing out of frameworks it the end of the year without a trade deal will have a huge impact on the ability to stockpile medicines at a time when we need it most.
This is not about Brexit. There is no question about our membership of the European Union, and there is no use in rehashing the debates of the last four years. Rather, it’s about protecting the people of Wales from the double threat of covid-19 and no trade deal.
A survey of over 2,000 people commissioned by Hope not Hate and Best for Britain recently found that 66 per cent across the UK support an extension to the transition period. Half of those who voted to leave also support an extension, in a sign that this is a question that goes beyond the dividing lines of the last four years.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little sign of movement by this ideologically driven government. Instead, they are moving in the opposite direction, with a Cabinet Office minister last week going as far as saying that it would be “crazy” to extend the transition. If it is “crazy” to wish to protect the livelihoods of the people of Wales, I will wear it as a badge of honour.
Boris Johnson could today protect our economy from the double shock that is on the horizon. If he doesn’t, we will hold him to account for any attempt to use this pandemic to cover his failures in negotiations.
With his 80-seat majority, the Prime Minister may not worry in the immediate. But he should be aware that eventually, the truth always comes out.