So the day has come. Nearly 47 years after joining what was then the European Economic Community, at 11 o’clock tonight – Europe’s midnight – we will formally leave what has since become the European Union.
At such a moment what should the respective cohorts of Remain and Leave do? Wail and gnash their teeth? Dance in the streets? The former risks seeming ungracious in defeat; the latter, both ungracious and unseemly in victory.
The fact is that both sides in this existential debate have reason to be sombre when the appointed hour arrives. For those of us who are still persuaded that this is a backward step for our country and our continent, there are ample reasons to mourn the passing of an historic period for both entities and to fear for both their futures.
That is why tonight thousands right across the country will be holding vigils, flying the EU flag or wearing blue. In the Welsh capital at 6:15 pm there will be a ‘Vigil for Peace in Europe’ at the National Cenotaph in Cathays Park and we are also asking people to light a candle in their window at 11 pm.
That is why also, tomorrow morning before Wales plays Italy in what has become a European rugby tournament, we will gather at the statue of Aneurin Bevan in Cardiff’s Queen Street for another act of commemoration.
Even for those of a different persuasion – contemplating the present bran tub of uncertainties – some trepidation must surely be in order. Even our Prime Minister, much given to bombast, has had second thoughts about spending half a million pounds to make a trussed-up Big Ben bong at the appointed hour. As well he might.
Despite three and a half years of fractious Parliamentary debate, two general elections and the final passing of the Withdrawal Agreement Act, it is still impossible to see clearly what shape any agreement will take if, indeed, agreement can be reached at all.
Boris Johnson, the single most spectacular beneficiary of the Brexit saga, has clearly taken to heart the words of Oliver Cromwell, “No-one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”
But there is at least one thing on which both sides in our still divided society should be able to agree: namely that at this moment of departure we should wish our erstwhile partners in the EU well. We need the EU to succeed, just as much as ourselves. That is why the crass, undignified behaviour of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament this week should be disowned by all, whatever their view of Brexit.
One can but hope that all members of our government share this view sincerely and are not simply mouthing necessary platitudes. For, despite tonight’s formal fracture, our relationship with that union will remain our most important relationship – determined by geographic proximity (to the east and west of us), history, shared values, and economic and strategic engagement.
That will not change on the stroke of Europe’s midnight. All those factors will remain as guideposts to a new relationship or, if unheeded, as benchmarks of our national folly.
These are the reasons why organisations such as Wales for Europe and similar local groups across Wales will stay in being. We will still have a role to play. We will still be a European nation.
That does not mean that we will, ostrich-like, refuse to recognise the hard fact of our withdrawal from the EU. Neither does it mean that we will be instantly campaigning to re-join the EU, for the reality is that, given the combination of the entrenched and fatigued nature of public opinion, the nature of this government and the present plight of our main opposition party, any prospect of re-entry is a distant one.
But the European flame needs to be kept alive in this country both at government level and via the many other avenues of civil society. We will only impoverish ourselves, both economically and culturally, if we wilfully allow the relationships built over the last half-century to atrophy. If anything we need to attend to those relationships more assiduously then we did over the period of our membership.
That is why it is right, even at this moment of withdrawal – even while the EU closes its Cardiff office, and the Irish Government opens its own here – that the Welsh Government’s new international Strategy, proposes an increase in our presence in EU member states. That is absolutely the right decision.
That is also why we need to press hard to maintain what links we can, not only industrially but also through mechanisms such as Horizon 2020 research funding, the Erasmus scheme for students and Creative Europe.
It took 18 years following the rejection of devolution in the 1979 referendum in Wales before that national decision could be reversed, and even then that was achieved by only a whisker. It is possible that given the accelerating pace of change, economic and political circumstances might enable us to re-establish our connection with the EU in far less than 18 years. But it is very unlikely to happen in under a decade.
The first hurdle will be the next 12 months of negotiation (and most likely longer) when we will need to ensure that the bird in the hand is not let slip. After all, any ‘come hither’ look from the biggest two birds in the global bush currently feels distinctly predatory.
We have been able to measure very precisely what the EU has made possible for us in Wales. We have been able to make reasonable estimates of what its loss would entail. But to date, we have not seen a single hard and measurable proposal for its replacement. Regional funding, agricultural funding, research funding, infrastructure funding – in all these fields the pig in a poke remains on the table.
And we in Wales have another reason to be nervous. We have grown used to standing third in the priority funding queue behind Scotland and Northern Ireland. Increasingly, it seems we are about to slip into fourth place behind the north of England. It is time the newly elected Conservative MPs in Wales joined the Welsh chorus.
There are places in every country of the UK that deserve every penny they can prise out of HM Treasury’s hand. But, given the traditional Conservative approach to the public finances, it is more than possible that the hand-outs will be rather less than the Prime Minister, in huckster mode, would have you believe. Blue, as well as red and green constituencies here, may well be short-changed.
But this is to take too transactional a view of the consequences of our withdrawal from the greatest experiment in supranational government in history. Of course, it would be silly and counter-productive for campaigners for Europe to will Britain to fail. The consequences for communities and families would be horrendous. Equally, it would be wrong for Leavers to will the EU to fail. There is so much more at stake.
It is a poignant irony that a week that started with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz ends with our withdrawal from the European Union. The coincidence underscores one of the greatest political failures of our time. Its imperfections notwithstanding, the case for the European Union remains. It will be for another generation to take us back to where this country should belong.