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The implications of Brexit for the Welsh language

An article by Anna Rolewska, Policy Officer for the Welsh Language Commissioner

According to the former Secretary of State for Leaving the EU, David Davis MP, Brexit will be 'biggest change for a generation'. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any policy area that will not be affected by Brexit.
We don’t yet know what kind of relationship Britain will have with the EU after March 2019. But whatever our own political views, it is fair and appropriate to highlight the risks and challenges that could arise as a result of the process.
In this respect, some policy areas have received very little attention in the discussions so far. Unfortunately, the Welsh language is one of those areas. As a result, over the past few months we have been trying to highlight the potential risks of Brexit for Welsh speakers and Welsh-speaking communities.
Sectors such as the agricultural sector and the post-16 sector are extremely important for the Welsh language. Both employ a high percentage of Welsh speakers. Agricultural businesses are the life blood of many rural communities where Welsh is spoken as the natural everyday language; the post-16 sector is responsible for producing a bilingual skilled workforce. The two sectors rely extensively on the benefits of the EU membership, including broad financial support, free trading arrangements and free travel arrangements. Unfortunately, this also means they are vulnerable to exceptional damage due to Brexit. It is fair to fear that any blow to these sectors is likely to be a blow to the Welsh language as well.
European funding has also supported the Welsh language more directly. Organisations such as the Urdd, Mentrau Iaith Cymru and Four Cymru have attracted European support to projects aimed at promoting skills and business, with the Welsh language at the heart of their activities. European funding has supported other well-known initiatives and projects – such as the renovation of Nant Gwrtheyrn centre and the production of Y Gwyll / Hinterland. Again, there are grounds for concern that similar support will not be available after Brexit.
We should also consider implications other than funding. The EU is an important platform for speakers of various minority languages to work together and take advantage of intellectual and political support. The Union is home to networks such as the NPLD (Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity), and cultural exchange projects such as Erasmus+. Brexit could prevent Welsh speakers from benefitting from opportunities such as these in the future.
Wider social implications are also possible. Lawyer Emyr Lewis suggested that Brexit could lead to marginalising the voice of minority communities in political discourse and undermine respect towards them. We know that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes since the Brexit vote. There has also been a spotlight on insults aimed at Welsh speakers. It must be noted that there is no solid research that connects these statements with Brexit. However, we believe that the social climate that emerged in the wake of the vote has created an atmosphere that allows such attitudes to prosper.
Finally, Brexit could affect the system for protecting basic human rights in the UK.  The potential impact on individuals’ language rights appears to be relatively limited at present. However, we must carefully monitor the development of the discussion about the future of the Human Rights Act 1998 and plans to introduce a British Bill of Rights to take its place.
Of the above considerations, the Welsh Government has given some attention to the potential impact of Brexit on the Welsh language in the context of the agriculture sector. In the consultation paper on the future of subsidies to the agricultural sector and forestry in Wales – ‘Brexit and our land' – it acknowledged the importance of the Welsh language for rural Wales. However, we argued with others that a stronger action is needed in order to protect the connection between the Welsh language and the agricultural sector, including designating the language a 'public good’ under the new policy.
Beyond the agricultural sector, the Welsh Government has paid little attention to the implications of Brexit for the Welsh language. There is also little evidence that the UK Government has given any specific attention to the issue. For this reason, in December 2018 we wrote to the Minister for the Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Leaving the EU. We called on them to address the issue and to work together to mitigate any negative effects of Brexit on the Welsh language.
We also warmly welcome the recent report by the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee, which calls on the Welsh Government to produce a risk assessment of the effect of Brexit on the Welsh language. We have been calling for such assessment for a long time now and we will be keeping a keen eye on the Government’s response to the recommendation.

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