Two members of Miller Research attended a conference in Hay-on-Wye, reflecting on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, one year later. Organised by Eluned Morgan AM, the event invited politicians, journalists, researchers and business people to present their views on the past year and the challenges presented by the ongoing negotiations.
The opening panel comprised Lord Neil Kinnock, former Leader of the Labour Party and EU Commissioner, Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and Lord Kerr, author of Article 50. Sir Starmer outlined the Labour Party’s position on Brexit, stating that – while he campaigned and voted for remain – it must respect the democratically-expressed will of the British public. Emphasising the need for ‘nuance’ in the debate, he told the audience how he expects that negotiations are likely to continue for perhaps three to five years after the deadline of 2019, and in doing so rejected the simplistic messages of the Vote Leave campaign. Both Lord Kerr and Lord Kinnock were much more straightforward in their positions, arguing that Brexit can and should be avoided. Kinnock argued that the result of the General Election has created a mandate to delay or suspend Article 50, while Kerr stated that the UK could change its mind at any point up until the end of the two year deadline and call for a second referendum prior to the end of March 2019. The positions put forward by Kerr and Kinnock were met with cheers by a very pro-remain audience.
After this introductory session, Morgan showed a sobering film in which she questioned people in Llanelli Market on immigration and Brexit. It highlighted that many people wouldn’t change their mind if they could vote again and that immigration remains the top concern for many, whilst also suggesting that the ‘generational divide’ on Brexit persists one year later. Michiel Van Hulten, a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Euro Institute and former MEP, then took the floor and discussed his sadness – both professional and personal – about the result in June last year. He presented the ‘view from Europe’, explaining that while a minority in Brussels viewed the result as a relief – as the UK has typically resisted European integration – most remain shocked and concerned about the future of the Union. He explained that the result does not just reflect the deep divide in the UK about its position in the world, but also an existential crisis for the EU. Importantly, he said that for the UK to build a positive relationship with the EU post-Brexit, the discussions must be sophisticated and recognise the complexity of the deals to be agreed.
Looking more locally, the next panel came together to discuss what Brexit means for Wales – focusing on the complexity of devolution and the problem of losing EU funding, should we leave the Single Market. Cabinet Secretary for Finance Mark Drakeford AM, argued in favour of remaining in the Single Market to ensure that Welsh businesses have access potential market. Helen Birtwhistle, the Director of Wales for Europe, argued that access to or membership of the single market was insufficient. Like Kerr and Kinnock, she argued that the only way Wales can retain influence over its future is if the UK remains an EU Member State.
After lunch, a panel convened discussing the future of journalism in the era of so-called ‘fake-news’. Martin Shipton, Media Wales’ Chief Reporter, discussed the importance of regional news, stating that coverage of Welsh news is marginalised in the UK as national newspapers fail to adequately cover Welsh Assembly activity and customers are frequently opting for online, national newspapers over their Welsh counterparts. On the discussion of ‘fake news’, Cathy Duncan argued that left-wing sites such as The Canary are providing an ‘antidote’ to more right-leaning tabloid press. She also encouraged consumers of journalism to support quality journalism by purchasing subscriptions.
The final panel comprised Jo Stevens MP, Dr Jo Hunt, Prof Laura McAllister from Cardiff University, and Dr Rachel Minto from the Wales Governance Centre. Their discussion focused on ‘The Choices Facing the UK’. Of particular interest was the discussion about the risks and opportunities facing Welsh devolution if the UK leaves the single market: as EU competencies devolve back to the UK, will Wales gain more power, or will Westminster seek to roll-back devolution? Of further significance was the question surrounding Single Market legislation, as devolution occurred within the EU Single Market. If we leave, therefore, will new legislation have to provide for cross-border standards in the UK?
Overall, it was an incredibly informative and insightful day. It was fascinating to hear from those at the forefront of EU negotiations and gain further understanding of the complexities involved going forward.