What ‘independence’ actually means in practice varies over time; as the context changes, so the meaning changes. Prior to the UK joining the then EEC, it was obvious what independence meant – it was that status enjoyed by the majority of European countries outside the Soviet bloc. As the now EU expanded over time, to reach a point where it now encompasses almost all European countries, the meaning of ‘independence’ changed to reflect the new context. It was, though, still equivalent to the status enjoyed by the majority of European states; it was simply that that status had changed.
The question facing those of us who seek independence for Wales in the future is this: what does ‘independence’ mean in the new context which we will be facing? And the prior question is: what is that new context? There are three broad possibilities.
1. It may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I’m not yet entirely convinced that Brexit will actually happen. The more detail that we see and the more complexities there seem to be in extricating the UK from the EU, the more it seems to be at least possible that a movement to reverse the decision will succeed.
2. On the other hand, Brexit as currently foreseen may indeed happen, leaving the UK in a stronger/weaker (depending on perspective and events) position in the world, whilst the remaining 27 – joined in time by a few other countries such as the remaining Balkan states – continue the project on which they’ve set themselves.
3. There is another extreme of course (although this currently seems less likely to me) - it is not impossible that the mood for change will sweep across Europe and the EU will either collapse or else morph into something a great deal less coherent. In the very worst case, Europe could even return to its ‘default’ long term condition of being a series of warring states.
Those are three very different scenarios, and for those of us who want to see an independent Wales, they lead to very different understandings of what ‘independence’ means.
We could have an interesting debate as to whether membership of the EU is truly ‘independence’ at all; inevitably membership of such an organisation implies a pooling of sovereignty in some areas. But we could equally debate whether any country is truly independent any more, because in various ways we are all interdependent, and all countries share sovereignty in some areas to a greater or lesser extent. In terms of considering the options for Wales looking forward, I start from the position of accepting that EU member state is the de facto definition of what ‘independence’ means in the modern European context. So, in the ‘wishful thinking’ scenario referred to above, the definition of independence for Wales remains clear and it looks as though Scotland and/or Catalunya will show us the route by which we might achieve it.
In what I hope is the least likely scenario (a return to nation states with or without a looser form of association) the definition of independence for Wales looks very similar to that we used to use prior to membership of the EU. And the route to achieving it is, if anything, clearer; secession from the UK more or less automatically results in that status. And it would be the normal status of most European countries, so Wales would not be particularly exceptional.
The hardest scenario to deal with is the one which currently appears most likely. What does independence look like for a Wales which finds itself outside the EU in an isolationist UK? And will Scotland still be part of that isolationist UK?
The big difference between Scotland and Wales here is over timing; given the political situation in Scotland, it is at least conceivable that independence could occur on a timescale which means that Scotland never leaves the EU at all.
(Of course there is debate, both legal and political, around the ease with which Scotland could achieve EU membership, but I tend to the view that, in the circumstances, the 27 remaining members of the EU would tend to adopt a pragmatic response to a country where all EU legislation and rules already apply. The point about an unprecedented situation is that there is no precedent; and in the absence of precedent – as for instance in the case of the reunification of Germany – the EU tends to find a way forward which advances its core rationale of European unity.)
The position for Wales is different. I see Wales as being at least a decade – and probably two – behind Scotland as things stand. If Wales opts for independence at some future date, it will come after a period outside the EU during which the UK Parliament, led by jingoistic Little Englanders, will probably have rolled back much of EU legislation on employment rights and environmental protection etc. The economy of Wales – already more integrated with that of England than is the case in Scotland, say – would have become even more integrated with that of England (especially if, as seems likely, the great new free trade area which we’ve been promised is limited to the UK itself in the early years).
Where in Europe are there any exemplars for the position in which a Wales achieving independence would find itself in this scenario? I simply don’t see any. The position of a stand-alone Wales outside both the EU and the UK doesn’t look an attractive option to me, and the path to EU membership looks a great deal more difficult than it would be if we were to choose independence at the point of Brexit. I’m very pessimistic about the future for Wales in that scenario; final and complete integration as a region of England looks by far the likeliest outcome. I’ve argued before that the vote about UK membership of the EU was ultimately a political decision for me not an economic one – fear for the future of Wales in an isolationist EnglandandWales was a prime driver.
It concerns me that so many nationalists in Wales seem happy to ‘accept the result’ and talk only about the terms of Brexit rather than about how we seek to reverse it. I fear that they are giving primacy to the short term economics, not the longer term politics; nationalists should always be looking to the long term. Of course it’s true that a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit will do less immediate damage to the Welsh economy, and of course it’s true that a strong Welsh economy will theoretically make independence easier. But Brexit, of any description, creates a new context, and redefines what independence means. I think it makes it very much harder to achieve, not least because it becomes much less attractive as an option.I was a late convert to support for EU membership, driven largely (as I’ve noted before) by the fact that as it has expanded it has effectively become the only game in town. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s the best – possibly the only – context in which Welsh ‘independence’ makes sense in the twenty-first century. It seems to me that for nationalists to accept the principle of Brexit is to make a major mistake – and possibly a terminal one for the cause of Wales.