It’s time for the Welsh Government to be ambitious about Brexit

It’s time for the Welsh Government to be ambitious about Brexit

For the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay, Brexit has only ever been about the apocalypse, despite the fact that the Welsh public voted to leave the EU.

No-one should underestimate the challenges such monumental change will present, particularly to the just-in-time food exports and supply chains which feature so strongly in our small business economy in Wales.

Even so, there has been a marked lack of appetite on the part of Welsh Government to talk up and find the positives of Brexit. As the Assembly’s own Brexit Committee discovered, they’ve also been pretty sluggish with progress in helping business, public services and the third sector assess challenges let alone actively plan for opportunities.

“Opportunities”. For quite possibly the first time ever, last week they put forward a Brexit debate which included the word “opportunities”.

Although quoting the title of a report, that’s the first time the Welsh Labour Government has started to brighten up on Brexit.

It appears that at last we seem to have reached a place where we can talk about what can be won from a sensible Brexit after years of doom and gloom being the only tradeable commodities in the Assembly Chamber.

While purists at both hard ends of the Brexit argument must remember that we cannot eat principles and we cannot buy our groceries with red lines, we can leave the European Union with a pragmatic menu which can keep both sides at the table healthy, well fed, and free to eat at other tables.

A White Paper is imminent, and the position may still change but, nonetheless the Welsh Government needs to get a move on. It needs to recognise that free trade with the EU and free trade with the rest of the planet is not a binary choice. And it’s not just the Welsh Government. Welsh politicians of all political colours must now focus urgently on planning to carve out those opportunities that will come from Britain leaving the European Union.

Coming out of the Common Fisheries Policy is absolutely one of those opportunities. The Assembly’s Brexit Committee heard from Prof Richard Barnes that “drifting further from the continent is definitely an appealing option for fisheries”, not least in Wales where maybe it is time to start considering how to grow that small part of the Welsh fleet which currently falls within the operation of quotas.

If this is to be achieved, for the benefit of Welsh fisheries and the Welsh economy, it will take determined leadership from within Wales, not one that continues to view Brexit through eyes looking backwards.

The Committee also heard that ministerial fora, which brings together the Cabinet level representatives of UK’s four administrations to help inform Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit, work particularly well in the case of DEFRA. This is the ideal place to press for attention on new markets for Welsh fisheries product as well as informing the central negotiations of the nature of our current market. The majority of the Welsh catch is shellfish and the majority of that goes to the EU; we cannot just ignore that.

This is why it is disappointing, that following these reportedly positive discussions, Welsh Labour Ministers time after time have returned to Wales to make pessimistic statements about the negotiations and the talks themselves. Our shellfish industry need reassurance from Welsh Government that non-quota stocks (90% of Welsh fisheries activity) will not be overlooked when Labour Ministers rely on their static principles alone to try and influence the UK Government.

Welsh Government has a Brexit Transition Fund. It’s worth £50m this year alone. It has paid out just £2.1m to the food sector in order to “protect” it from Brexit.

Transition, it must not be forgotten, is not just about “protection”, important though that is: it is a period to find new markets and new opportunities, even if we can not access them immediately. That £50m transition fund can be used to start scoping out new markets, planning how we might carve out those opportunities, and exploiting the connections that Welsh Government promises us that is is making through its network of offices around the globe.

After all, what is of overriding importance is that there is a market for Welsh fishing products around the world. For the good of Welsh fishing fleets, Welsh food and drink producers, Welsh jobs and the Welsh economy, Welsh Government must have more ambition.

We must all be thinking about the opportunities that Brexit offers for Wales.