Five years on from the Brexit referendum

Five years ago today the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), a process which culminated in the beginning of a new trade relationship with the EU from January 1st of this year.

WCPP and our predecessor organisation PPIW have been engaged with understanding the implications of Brexit for Wales throughout this period. We have picked through our archives to see how we covered Brexit and how we have done in capturing the impact of this most consequential event.


Brexit beginnings

In 2016, following the vote, we asked What will Brexit mean for Wales? We identified agricultural subsidies, migration and trade, investment and structural funding, as key areas where Wales would be affected by leaving the EU. These strands of work translated into our work programme over the following years.


Farms and fish

One consequence of leaving the EU has been to repatriate agricultural subsidies and fishing quotas to the UK. This means there is scope to rejig existing support systems and create new mechanisms to support these industries, as well as to achieve other public policy goals.

We looked at what Brexit could mean for agriculture and land use in Wales in 2018. Our report argued that it is likely that new agricultural subsidies would be less valuable overall, and that this combined with market access difficulties would make many farms and businesses, in particular sheep farms, less viable.

For fisheries, we found that the makeup of the sector in Wales means that the quota allocation process would have to change  and management be improved to benefit Wales’ small and specialised fleet. However, there are also opportunities to implement more sustainable and futures-oriented management.



EU migration was a key issue during the referendum and the consequences of a new immigration regime have been a concern for the Welsh Government during the last five years.

In 2017, we contributed to the Welsh Government’s work on Brexit and the Fair Movement of People, pointing out that although Wales relied less on EU migration than other parts of the UK, it could also lose out from new immigration rules.

In 2020 we issued one report calling for regional and sectoral variations in migration policy to allow Wales to attract migrants to support economic growth; and another noting that changes to the migration system will mean much of the social care system will struggle to recruit EU workers.


Trade, investment and structural funding

In 2018 we looked at the evidence around sub-national government involvement in international trade negotiations to see how Wales’ interests could be secured in the UK-EU trade deal negotiations, recommending that Wales pursue identified priorities and engage in proactive diplomacy and influencing work.

Wales did subsequently try to secure its own priorities during the UK-EU negotiations and during trade deal negotiations with third-party countries. Our 2020 report on the implications of the European transition for key Welsh economic sectors reflected how new trade barriers and an anticipated reduction in structural funding would affect key sectors of the Welsh economy. We found uncertainty and a lack of preparedness could exacerbate the effect of new barriers.


Democracy and devolution

A final strand in our work has been to understand the impact that the Brexit vote has had and will have on devolution.

There has been a concern that the repatriation of powers after Brexit would lead to recentralisation, with new powers being administered by Whitehall. Disputes over the Internal Market Act suggest that disagreements over how powers are exercised (and by whom) could still be disruptive, especially if there are strategic differences between Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

Brexit also highlighted the ways in which governments and government messaging can be disconnected from voters’ concerns, and why this might need to change.


How did we do?

The uncertainties of Brexit are reflected throughout our work, from initial distinctions between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexits through to a lack of clarity about how new rules would be administered. Our work has considered a range of possible outcomes and reflected the best available evidence at the time.

Recent difficulties over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol show that the full implications of Brexit and the implementation challenges are not yet understood. As time goes on, and the effects of Brexit are disentangled from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, it will be possible to reflect on how we did.

In the meantime, our work has helped policymakers in and beyond the Welsh Government get to grips with the complexities of leaving the European Union and to understand the challenges and the opportunities that come from our new trading relationship.