Wales could be devastated by a hard Brexit: AMs should back staying in the customs union

Simon Thomas AM

Last week we heard fresh warnings how a ‘hard Brexit’ could devastate Welsh meat and fish exports.

The paper from the ‘Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs’ Evidence and Scenarios Roundtable Sub-Working Group’ of the Welsh Government painted a grim picture for Wales if we drop out of the single market and the customs union.

This is why Plaid Cymru is calling for Assembly Members to show unanimous support for remaining in the customs union on Wednesday.

Currently, there is much semantic confusion around “the” customs union and “a” customs union.

To be clear, I think we should remain the current customs union. It has served Wales well and with much of our food and drink and manufacturing sector depending on time-critical and delay-free transfer of goods anything less would economically weaken our nation.

This is so, so clear in the “Brexit” economic analysis papers whose contents I am unable to divulge, but which provided no comfort to me at all when I read them.

Talk of “a” customs union, which London Labour are fixated about at present, is fool’s gold. It doesn’t exist and the EU has made it clear time and time again that in leaving the EU we cannot get a deal as good as what we have now.

Trade

Being in a customs union with our closest trading partners does not weaken our independence or sovereignty. An independent Wales would surely want to be in a customs union with England, Scotland and Ireland so why not with our closest European neighbours.

It makes sense for our red meat sector; our burgeoning drink sector (Wales is now a whisky-producing nation!); our car component manufacturers and major companies such as Airbus.

Without the customs union we could lose valuable port trade, particularly in Caergybi, and see our farmers struggling to access markets.

This is emphasised by the summary of EU Exit Scenario Planning Workshops mentioned above, which warns that food prices are set to rise across all scenarios, especially for people on lower incomes and says that a ‘hard Brexit’ in which the UK would operate under World Trade Organisation rules could be hugely disruptive for Welsh meat and fish exports.

The report also reviewed the environmental impact of Brexit as well as the dairy industry, forestry and animal welfare standards.

This is further evidence in favour of a Brexit deal which strays as little as possible from the current situation on trade. The report notes that access to the EU single market “would result in the least change on farms and within the supply chain.”

Disruption

We have tabled a motion in the National Assembly for debate Wednesday that supports Wales and the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the current EU customs union.

If Assembly Members of all parties and none vote to maintain Wales’s membership of the customs union it would generate more leverage for Wales in any negotiations.

The evidence is piling up that Wales’s environment and agricultural sectors could be devastated by a hard Brexit in which the UK would have to operate under stringent World Trade Organisation rules.

The report by the Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs Sub-Working Group issues important warnings which should be heeded.

They note that WTO rules “would severely inhibit trade” for the lamb sector where tariffs could be as high as 50%. They add that any tariff over 20% is likely to cause severe pressure or market collapse.

“Similarly, WTO rules would cause “considerable disruption” for beef exports while Welsh fishing could “collapse” if forced to operate in these circumstances, with trade disruption of only four to six weeks likely to have “devastating implications” for shellfish production.

Leverage

With these warnings in mind, Plaid Cymru are reiterating our calls for Wales to show unity in favour of remaining in the single market and the customs union.

It’s vital that Wales’s hand is strengthened in any Brexit negotiations – we cannot do this without more leverage.

Voices for Wales and Scotland were conspicuous by their absence from the Prime Minister’s Chequers gathering last week as ministers sought to seal the UK’s Brexit fate.

We cannot leave such key decisions to a Westminster government committed to hurtling out of the EU on the hardest of Brexit terms possible. A Westminster opposition that is riven by division and a Secretary of State who has presided over broken promises and failed to attract key investment into Wales.

I urge AMs from all parties to join us on Wednesday in supporting continued membership of the customs union. Failure to do so could weaken Wales’s stance as we strive to be heard in this most crucial of debates.

The more Wales speaks with one voice on this matter, the more we can force Westminster to listen.

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