As the four nations of the United Kingdom adjust to their new-found freedom from the European Union, the Welsh government must embrace the opportunities Brexit has to offer. The nation’s financial dependence on the EU was hefty but it’s a reliance that can now be broken through the embrace of a commitment to pro-market principles and fiscal responsibility.
Despite its significant shortcomings, the latest budget announcement by Chancellor Rishi Sunak has, at least in part, signalled a readiness to support the devolved administrations with an additional £2.4 billion for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland distributed through the Barnett formula – a clear nod to the first stage of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
While these funds will be beneficial for the devolved economies in the long-term, immediate action must be taken to transform the Welsh economy to a sure footing where a radical pro-business, pro-trade agenda takes centre stage.
Firstly, the initial hiccups in Welsh trade with the EU need to be addressed. Whitehall’s failings to prepare for the new post-Brexit customs arrangements is causing unnecessary harm to Welsh exporters – particularly for shellfish and steel. Many small businesses have borne the brunt of government failings, enduring long delays and extra costs as a result of superfluous, pedantic paperwork.
It is time for the UK to embrace our new-found status by disregarding EU rules and regulations and tackle the non-tariff barriers they have created. We must rewrite the customs book with a digitalised, modern customs system and provide a consistent approach when exporting to the EU. But crucially, it must appeal to the meat and fish industry’s just-in-time supply chains.
Specifically, when looking at the agricultural sector, both Whitehall and the Senedd must embrace the freedoms gained from Brexit. Leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) allows for more targeted, effective spending. Once the dust settles, this means less paperwork, shorter administrative chains, and more control over fraud. Married with Whitehall’s promise to pay £243million to Welsh farmers, subsidies in both agricultural and structural funds will be maintained.
Elsewhere, logistical problems must be solved. It is imperative that the port of Holyhead and the Pembroke Dock are protected as a hub for Welsh trade. Reports that Irish lorry drivers are bypassing Welsh ports to avoid paperwork is alarming, considering that £20bn worth of trade crosses the Irish Sea every week.
We must consider this an opportunity to develop the route between Pembrokeshire and Rosslare. Changes on the Welsh side to both manufacturing and logistics need to be revised to make the ports stronger and more competitive than ever – and crucially, to boost industry in the region.
Most importantly, Wales needs a proactive economy that favours small businesses and encourages both private and international investment. As discussed in the IBN’s latest report, this should be delivered via a reduction of VAT – a suffocating tax for small businesses – and the elimination of corporation tax – an alienating tax for international investors. Patient capital must be secured for British businesses. A creation of a British Growth Bank and a ‘Scale-Up’ loan would do just that.
Indeed, Brexit has offered the opportunity for the UK to boost the domestic economy via tax and regulation. Wales is now given the chance to sell internally to the rest of the UK, within the UK’s single market.
There are also new markets opening up overseas. Post-Brexit, new trading opportunities have arisen for both Wales and Britain as a whole. The Senedd’s discussions with the Irish government show promise in developing a stronger relationship outside the EU. Meanwhile, we urge the Welsh government to seek deals beyond the EU to nations such as India, America, South Korea, and appeal to fast-growing economies in Latin America and North Africa.
The Welsh Government has faced significant challenges in recent years, particularly with the detrimental impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet through Brexit, the Senedd can take the lead to mobilise its resources to streamline the Welsh economy. Surviving the initial transitional hiccups of Brexit, Welsh international trade and investment promises small businesses a more prosperous future. Indeed, the success of the vaccination rollout in Wales proves what Welsh determination and proactiveness can achieve.
John Longworth is Chairman of the Independent Business Network (IBN).