The Welsh first minister has warned that this week’s UK-EU deal on Northern Ireland trade could shift traffic from his country’s ports to those in England and Scotland.
Mark Drakeford said in an interview with the FT that the changes, which reduced controls on freight travelling directly from Britain to Northern Ireland, could damage the port of Holyhead and to a lesser extent those of Fishguard and Pembroke.
“We hope that there won’t be perverse incentives for firms to avoid ports where the direction of travel is directly to the Republic in favour of ports that operate directly between Northern Ireland and GB,” he said on a trip to Brussels.
“How will these new arrangements impact Holyhead? Fishguard? Pembroke Dock. It’s a concern for us that we’ll be watching carefully.”
He said Brexit had “very badly affected” ports in Wales. The Dublin to Holyhead route was the main route used by Irish hauliers taking goods to France and beyond over the so-called “land bridge”. But once Brexit imposed customs paperwork and other checks, many switched to direct ferries to France.
Holyhead traffic halved in January 2021 when Great Britain left the EU single market; it has now returned to 70 per cent of pre-Covid and pre-Brexit levels, Drakeford said. He added it had hit a “stubborn ceiling” and its share could now fall further.
Northern Ireland remained in the EU single market for goods after Brexit to avoid a trade border on the island of Ireland.
The so-called Windsor framework announced on Monday ended two years of rancour over the region’s post-Brexit trading arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
The new deal ensures freight moving directly from mainland Britain destined to remain in the region uses a “green lane” with lighter controls, while goods moving on to the Republic are subject to more rigorous checks.
Despite the impact of the Windsor framework on Welsh ports, Drakeford welcomed the deal and said he hoped it would lead to improved ties between the UK and EU.
“You hope that it opens the way to a different sort of more constructive, more collegiate relationship with our nearest and most important neighbours, and that in time that could lead to a change in some of the more regrettable parts of the [post-Brexit] Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” he said.
Drakeford was in Brussels to press for UK involvement in projects such as Horizon Europe, the €96bn research programme, and Erasmus Plus, which allows young people to study at universities abroad. London elected to leave the Erasmus programme after Brexit.
The Labour government in Wales is spending up to £65mn on Taith, its alternative to Erasmus.
“We have found, by our standards, a large sum of money to be able to support 15,000 young people from Wales to visit, study, work, volunteer in other countries, and we will pay for 10,000 young people from other parts of the world to come and do the same thing in Wales. We’d rather be a member of Erasmus Plus.”
Drakeford also wants a revival of jointly funded EU-UK development projects, such as the Wales-Ireland Interreg infrastructure programme, which continues on a smaller scale bilaterally.
“There are those practical things that make a difference to the prospects of people living in Wales, on which the doors have been closed. I would hope that the other side of a deal on the protocol that those things could begin to reopen.”