21 July 2017

Brexit and borders

As an archaeologist who voted in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, it is impossible not to consider the historical dimensions of Brexit. A particular concern for me is the potential loss of the freedom of movement that I have been able to take advantage of as an EU citizen. I have been thinking a lot about borders, particularly the one I cross every day – between Wales and England.

The train from Aberystwyth to Birmingham International 
passing the Shrewsbury Sutton Bridge Signal box, August 2016.

The current Anglo-Welsh border was created as part of the process of fully incorporating Wales into the English legal system. This was done in 1535 and 1542 by two pieces of legislation collectively known as the ‘Laws in Wales Acts’. The legal status of Wales as part of England was fixed by the Wales and Berwick Act 1746. In the long term, the effective abolition of Wales as a legal entity has had the opposite effect - increasing nationalism in the nineteenth century has led to the current situation where Wales has its own government, and even, following the 2017 Wales Act, the potential to create its own Parliament (as opposed to the current 'Assembly').

However in the direction this country is currently being taken it seems quite likely that the Tory government in Westminster will seek to 'take back control' of some of the powers that have been devolved to the constituent parts of the UK. This seems most likely to take place first in the realm of agri-environment schemes and agricultural subsidy more generally, when EU funding will entirely disappear and is promised to be replaced by money from the UK government. The mechanisms for this have not been worked out, and in the meantime the whole system seems to be grinding to a halt, which doesn't inspire much confidence. We shall see.

It is of course ironic that a government committed to 'the Union' of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is blindly and increasingly incompetently trying to pull the UK away from the European Union. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty. This document, contentious for Tories and ultimately fatal for John Major, laid down the principles of the modern EU and began the road to the Euro.

The EU demonstrates that it is possible to have freedom of movement, freedom of trade, peace, prosperity and mutual support whilst still retaining independence and individuality. Ironically of course regions like Wales benefit the most from the redistribution of wealth within the EU through structural funds. One very stupid thing about Brexit is that the UK is not in Schengen (so we have control of our own borders) and we are not in the Euro (so we have control of our own currency).

Hopefully the incompetence of the current government is simply a clever ruse to stop the whole thing altogether. Again, we shall see.

Happily I am about to go on holiday next week on an epic road trip which will take me from Shrewsbury to the Black Sea - passing through or visiting no less than seven other EU countries. Some of these were at various times part of the Habsburg Empire, which managed in a slightly crazy way to hold together various national, linguistic and cultural groups in a structure that permitted freedom of movement, expression and trade.

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