Brexit Poses A Threat To The Very Existence Of The Union – But It's Not Too Late To Change Course

In Northern Ireland, Scotland and here in Wales, we need a solution in which we continue to participate in the single market and a customs union

The potential threat posed by Brexit to the make-up, indeed the very existence of the United Kingdom hardly figured in the campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum.

But now, among the escalating fears about the ways in which a no-deal Brexit could damage so many aspects of the fabric of our country, these issues are coming to the fore.

Most obviously, of course, the threat relates to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has apparently told the Cabinet, a no-deal Brexit will almost inevitably lead to a ‘border poll’ – a referendum about the reunification of Ireland. In current circumstances, no one can be confident what the outcome of such a vote would be.

In Scotland, a radical break with the EU – enforced despite a clear mandate for remain north of the border – coupled with a UK Government threatening to position the UK as a European Singapore, with low taxes and even lower standards of social and employment rights, would surely fuel the case for a second independence referendum.

But, as well as the threat from a no deal Brexit, Theresa May’s deal also poses a significant threat to the Union.

From our perspective, the EU’s determination to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland is wholly legitimate. It stands in stark contrast to the insouciant disregard on the part of Boris Johnson and the like of the real risks of economic disruption and civil unrest arising from a more visible border.

Although justified, if the ‘Irish backstop’ in the Withdrawal Agreement, was ever implemented, it could undermine the coherence of the United Kingdom.

As a country whose nearest neighbour is the Irish Republic, and as a government strongly committed to devolution and to the Union, Wales does not want to see any additional barriers to trade across the Irish Sea.

We believe a key goal of Brexit policy in the next few weeks must be to ensure the backstop will never be needed.

The answer of course, is a solution which avoids the imposition of new tariff or non-tariff barriers to trade between the whole of the UK and the EU.

This is the sort of post-Brexit relationship with the EU we have advocated ever since the referendum result was announced: a Brexit in which we continue to participate in the single market and a customs union, and where we use powers which have always existed to ensure fair movement of people within the European Economic Area.

It’s what has become known as ‘Norway Plus’.

This is a Brexit which has always been on the table as far as the EU has been concerned but was ruled out by the Prime Minister’s mutually contradictory red lines of no single market, no customs union and no Irish border.

It is a Brexit which would mitigate the economic damage the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal and her deeply-flawed migration proposals would inflict – a hit to GDP of around 4%.

Committing to this form of Brexit, which puts the economy first but also does least damage to the fabric of the Union, would not require significant change to the Withdrawal Agreement itself, but would involve a rewriting of the so-called Political Declaration – something which was cobbled together in 10 days in November.

It is a practical and viable solution to a crisis which threatens to do untold damage to the whole of the United Kingdom.

As Parliament prepares to vote – and almost certainly vote down – the deal, it is not too late to change course.

Jeremy Miles is the Welsh Labour and Co-operative Party Assembly Member for Wales for Neath


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