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A Deal Has Been Done – What Now?

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Helen Wales

We can breathe a sigh of relief that the Prime Minister has seen sense and resisted the temptation of ending this year without a deal with the EU.

A deal is infinitely better than no deal, and offers building blocks for the future. As Guy Verhofstadt said on Wednesday, ‘I hope future UK politicians will build on this partnership so we can regain the close relationship’.

We must not be fooled, though. This is the first time a trade deal has been agreed that puts up barriers to trade, rather than removing them.

This deal will be a far cry from what we have enjoyed during the Transition Period, let alone during our decades as members of the EU – however much optimistic bluster Johnson wheels out. The OBR has predicted a 4% hit to our economy, non-tariff barriers will increase costs for businesses and consumers. Free Movement is over.

We will know more when the detail becomes clearer in the coming days, but the list of issues still to be worked through is likely to be long: financial services, mutual recognition of qualifications and medicines, approvals for the transfer of data. .

Whatever you might hear, this is far from done.

In the meantime, we must remember that every step taken has marked a political choice by those in power at Westminster. From the red lines that were inked out in the months after the Referendum, to the scorn poured on calls to buy more time in the middle of a cruel pandemic. Things could have been very different.

The consequences of today’s agreement must sit squarely on the shoulders of those who have brought us to this destination, a road lined with broken promises and false reassurances.

And what does it mean for Wales?

Manufacturing has already given its notice in Bridgend and Broughton. Holyhead and our docks in Pembrokeshire have been served time – though are likely to have a swansong of confusion and congestion. Our farmers remain worried. The plans to replace EU funding are still to be worked out and Westminster is still seeking to undermine the Senedd.

But when the dust settles on our ports, when the customs systems are finally in place, when weakened supply chains have stumbled into life, when the Daily Mail has got bored of self-righteous headlines about airport queues, we will still be feeling the damage of this thinnest of deals.

Fewer opportunities for scientific and creative collaboration. Limits on individual freedoms to travel, live, work and study in Europe. The threat of a long and slow process of deregulation of rights and protections. Mistrust on the international stage.

There are some who would prefer to forget the B-word, to finally ‘get over it’ and sweep the last few years under the carpet. But Brexit and its consequences are not going to disappear quickly.

Labour MPs in particular must ask themselves whether they can seriously vote for this deal, knowing it could have been so different and knowing the damage it will cause, especially when the risk of No Deal is negligible given Parliamentary numbers. If they do vote for it, they must be willing to shout even more loudly about the damage caused – and hope their acquiescence at this point doesn’t muffle their future protests.

There is no contradiction between accepting that we are where are, and wanting to actively work towards a closer relationship with Europe.  And we can do that in Wales, regardless of decisions in London (how about Welsh participation in Erasmus for a start?).

At Wales for Europe, we believe that now is the time to look forward, not back. And we can work towards a better future, seeking to salvage something from the ruins of Brexit, whilst still regretting the decisions that have been made and holding those who have made them to account.

At the heart of this future, we need to place rebuilding relationships based on trust and respect – from our EU27 colleagues and neighbours who have been treated with contempt since 2016, to politicians, businesses and collaborators across the channel.

In the year of Covid, the one thing we should all have learnt is just how deeply connected we are to each other, for better or worse. We have survived isolation through creating new connections, and the first vaccine to get us out of this is a masterclass in European collaboration. This is the spirit on which we must now build.

Helen Wales, Chair, Wales for Europe