Diolch, Mr Speaker. This debate, and the votes that will follow next week, will probably be the defining moments of this Parliament. They will certainly determine Ceredigion’s prospects and prosperity for decades to come. The withdrawal agreement and the declaration on the framework for the future relationship can perhaps be described as the Government’s attempt to convince Parliament to abandon the familiar benefits and certainty of the status quo, and risk it all by embracing the possibilities of the unknown and moving towards a relationship with the European Union whose opportunities are apparently unencumbered by the constraints of reality.
The matter in question is deeply significant and serious. This is our future relationship with our closest and largest trading partner and ally. It is therefore our duty as parliamentarians to challenge the ambiguity and the risks inherent in this deal, especially in the political declaration on the future relationship. As detailed in the Government’s own analysis, the UK will be poorer over the next 15 years under all possible scenarios than it would have been within the EU single market and customs union.
Ceredigion is reliant on the knowledge and rural economies. The education sector alone accounts for 20% of our economic output and sustains around 5,000 jobs in total, more than 2,800 of them directly supported by the county’s two universities. Agriculture is key to wealth and job creation, with every £1 generated translating into £7.40 for the local economy through supply chains and spending. Each job in farming supports another 3.5 in other sectors.
There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, but there are a few things we can be certain about. We know that the single market is a vital export destination for Welsh food and drink, with more than 80% of exports going to the EU. We know that the Welsh universities thrive on our membership of the EU and particularly benefit from the contribution of staff and students from the EU, as well as from European Research Council funding. We know that both the agricultural and higher education sectors will therefore be heavily impacted by changes to our relationship with the EU and devastated if we were to leave the customs union and single market.
That said, we do not know what the future relationship under this deal will look like, despite our having triggered article 50 two years ago and having debated the matter ever since. During this time, sectors such as agriculture and higher education have been plunged into unprecedented uncertainty, so it is entirely understandable that some find the prospect of a period of stability appealing and therefore the Government’s deal worth supporting. Let us be clear, however, that the proposal is no more than a 20-month stay of execution, not a reprieve. It offers a brief respite, but no assurances for the long term.
Uncertainty over the future relationship will continue to plague businesses and communities throughout the transition and most likely beyond. Far from the detailed and substantive document promised, the political declaration merely sets out a spectrum of potential options. The details will materialise only on the conclusion of yet further negotiations. While the Government have stated repeatedly that they will not entertain the prospect of another referendum, it is unclear what role Members of Parliament, as the elected representatives of the people, will have in the negotiations and whether they will have a role in the ratification of any agreement reached.
Admittedly, the declaration expresses a great deal of ambition for a close trading relationship, but to echo the Brexit Select Committee, ambition is no guarantee of success, and the experience of the past two years does not instil great confidence in the Government’s ability to deliver on such ambition or indeed to engage with others to seek compromise. It has been heartening to hear a lot tonight about compromise. Those who argue that opponents of the Prime Minister’s deal have not offered alternatives are mistaken and have not been listening. Several alternatives have been aired this evening. Back in January 2017—two years ago—a colleague in the Senedd, Steffan Lewis, in co-operation with the Welsh Government, published a White Paper detailing a range of options and a conclusion about what they thought was the best future relationship for Wales and the EU.
Ceredigion voted to remain, and conversations I have had with constituents have given no indication of a change of heart. The Government present us with an offer of embarking on a voyage to an unknown destination, warning that it will leave us poorer and possibly lead to ruin, yet they nevertheless ask us as parliamentarians to relinquish any say over the choice of destination and to renounce all influence over the course charted. Given the reservations I have expressed, this is an undertaking that I cannot in good conscience support.