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Keith Williams is a Welsh farmer from Llandrindod Wells, about 96 kilometres north of Cardiff. The sheep and cattle farmers of Wales have long depended on trade with the European Union, and many worry that Brexit will be a serious blow to their bottom line.

Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

Wyn Evans’s family has been raising sheep along the lush valleys of western Wales for 500 years, and as he approaches 60, Mr. Evans would like to pass the farm on to his son. But that’s becoming increasingly uncertain thanks to Brexit.

Mr. Evans is typical of many farmers in this part of Wales, where bumpy roads snake up and down steep hillsides lined with grazing sheep. He has about 400 sheep and 60 cattle across 200 acres. He and his wife, Nicole, and their son, Gwynfor, are just about breaking even. But similar to almost all other sheep farmers in Wales, the Evans family depends on the European Union for survival.

About 40 per cent of Welsh lamb is exported, and nearly all of that goes to France, Germany and other European Union countries, where it’s considered such a delicacy it has been given a special geographic designation, like Parma ham and Champagne. Once Britain leaves the EU, lamb exports to the bloc will face a 46-per-cent tariff, and the duty on some cuts of sheep meat will run as high as 61 per cent. And unless Britain slaps similar tariffs on its imports, the country will be awash with cheap lamb from New Zealand. “It would be quite catastrophic,” Mr. Evans said as he sipped a cup of coffee at his kitchen table. “We could see prices collapse by about 30 per cent. And that would make the job totally and utterly unprofitable.”

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Wyn Evans, shown on his sheep farm this past January.

Jo Kearney/The Associated Press


It’s not as though the family has other options. Growing crops is all but impossible in the rugged Welsh countryside, which is why farmers in Wales depend more on sheep than their counterparts in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. For a region with three million people and nearly 10 million sheep, much is at stake.

Mr. Evans said he voted to remain in the EU, but believes the government should respect the referendum result.

It’s not just farmers who are worried. As Britain lurches toward a deadline of Oct. 31 to leave the EU, barring a last-minute extension, anxiety is increasing all over Wales. This region is often overlooked as the Brexit drama plays out in Westminster and Brussels, but no other part of the United Kingdom has more to lose from a disorderly departure than Wales.

The EU accounts for 61 per cent of all Welsh exports, compared to 46 per cent for the U.K. overall. Wales also receives about $1-billion annually from the EU in farm subsidies and regional development grants, far more than any other part of the U.K.

The Welsh coast has seven ports, and many rely heavily on EU trade. Among the most vital is Holyhead, which is a crucial entry point for Irish truckers moving goods across Britain to the continent and is second only to Dover in terms of freight traffic volumes.

Many parts of Wales are already feeling the effects from the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the increasing likelihood that Britain will leave without a withdrawal agreement. Ford Motor Co. is closing its engine plant in Bridgend, cutting 1,700 jobs. Quinn Radiators Ltd. has shut its factory in Newport, throwing 300 people out of work at what was once the largest radiator plant in Europe. The Tata Steel mill in Port Talbot is losing £1-million a day, and Airbus SE has said it will review its U.K. operations after Brexit, raising questions about the future of its wing plant in Flintshire, which employs more than 6,000 people.

“I don’t think anybody would disagree that Wales could be more prone to economic problems resulting from a no-deal Brexit,” said Max Munday, director of the Welsh economy research unit at Cardiff University. He added that the region’s industrial base is particularly vulnerable to Brexit because it’s dominated by branch plants of multinational firms. If Brexit goes badly, those plants “could easily relocate to other areas of Europe, and indeed there’s some evidence that’s already occurred,” Dr. Munday said. Many businesses, particularly in the food and beverage sectors, are also more susceptible to non-tariff barriers such as licensing requirements, product standards and rules that restrict the flow of goods from countries that don’t have a trade agreement with the EU. For government officials trying to figure out how to plan for Brexit, “this not knowing what’s going to happen is quite a nightmare,” Dr. Munday said.

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Boris Johnson, then a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership, is served ice cream with a Welsh flag on it at a Cardiff campaign event this past July.

Frank Augstein/Reuters

Beyond the economic concerns, there’s also a rising debate about the region’s future, particularly among those who want to remain in the EU.

Wales voted 53 per cent to leave in the 2016 referendum, compared to 52 per cent for the country as a whole. The result has prompted a surge of interest in independence as a way of keeping Wales in the EU.

Recent opinion polls have put support for sovereignty at around 25 per cent, and a YouGov poll last summer found that 41 per cent of those surveyed backed independence if it meant Wales would stay in the EU. That’s a far cry from before the referendum, when Welsh independence garnered single-digit backing in most polls.

“Brexit has basically shaken everything out,” said Sion Jobbins, a lifelong nationalist in Aberystwyth who co-founded YesCymru in 2014. Since the referendum, the group has opened 35 chapters across Wales, and some of its recent rallies have attracted 5,000 people. Mr. Jobbins said he’s never seen such an interest in sovereignty, even among long-time nationalists, who for years preferred to concentrate their efforts on promoting and protecting the Welsh language.

Independence may still be a way off, he added, but “for the first time, people in Wales are asking questions."

Last week Adam Price, the leader of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, told the party’s conference: "The U.K. as we know it could cease to exist in a short few years.”

Keith Williams's farm near Llandrindod Wells lies just up the road from Ebbw Vale, whose mines and steel mills were once vital to British manufacturing, until the coal and iron-ore pits closed and the steel business moved overseas.

Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail


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Brexit has also revealed a paradox in Wales that has confounded many outsiders. Support for leaving the EU was highest – up to 62 per cent – in communities that have received more EU funding for regional development than almost anywhere else in Europe. Nowhere is that dichotomy more evident than in Ebbw Vale, a city of 18,000 people in the heart of the Welsh coal country.

This part of Wales once fueled the industrial revolution, and the coal and iron mines employed more than 250,000 people. Few were bigger than the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Co., which started in 1790 and revolutionized the process of converting wrought iron to steel. The company had 34,000 workers at its peak in the 1920s, and operated the largest steel mill in Europe. Postwar modernization gradually made the coal mines uneconomical, and steelmaking eventually moved offshore. Most of the Welsh pits closed in the 1980s, and the Ebbw Vale plant shut down for good in 2002. By then it was down to 780 workers.

The loss of the mill sent Ebbw Vale into a steep economic decline. Today, the main street is scattered with dilapidated buildings and empty store fronts. Good jobs are scarce, and most people head to Cardiff or England to find work. Ebbw Vale’s plight made it a prime candidate for assistance from all levels of government, including the EU. Regional development grants from Brussels have helped build a highway, a hospital, a sports centre, a community college, a library, housing and an office building. The EU also chipped in to redevelop the city’s small main square with a collage commemorating the city’s mining history, a giant clock and a four-metre-tall stainless-steel dragon that depicts the symbol of Wales. It’s hard to go anywhere in Ebbw Vale without seeing the EU logo on a sign, a building or even at the base of the dragon.

Far from winning over locals, the government money has bred hostility toward the EU. Many people say the glittering projects are poor substitutes for lost livelihoods. This city voted 62 per cent to leave the EU, and feelings about the bloc have only hardened. “It’s all a waste of money,” Kay Durbin said as she had coffee and cigarettes with three friends outside the Box Café. “I voted to leave because I don’t want to be dictated to by the EU.” As her friends nodded in agreement, Ms. Durbin pointed toward the square and added: “The clock doesn’t work properly and I can do without the dragon.”

Down the street, Mauro Joseph and his wife, Caroline, run the Central Café, which used to be a busy hub for hungry millworkers and now serves just a handful of customers. The Josephs are among a minority who voted to remain in the EU in 2016, but they feel the Brexit debate has gone on too long and Britain should leave as soon as possible. Mr. Joseph worked in the mill for 22 years before taking over the cafe in the 1990s, and he says Ebbw Vale has never recovered from the plant closing. “You could leave school on Friday and start work Monday,” he said. When asked whether the EU had helped soften the blow, Mr. Joseph laughed and Ms. Joseph replied: “A lot of the money was wasted. We had a swimming pool and they knocked it down to build another one.”

“There was enormous economic and social change that I don’t think the EU money could ever have hoped to match or compensated for,” said Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, a think tank based in south Wales. “But it was talked up in a way that implied that it could.” She’s also not optimistic about the future for Wales after Brexit. “My own view is that we will have a period of chaos, which may well resolve quite quickly, but then there will be a long-term lack of economic growth," she said. "Just a very slow decline.”

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Mr. Williams is trying to stay optimistic about Brexit's impact on his business.

Up the road from Ebbw Vale, Keith Williams is trying to stay hopeful. He’s a farmer near Llandrindod Wells in central Wales, and he has 1,000 sheep and 23 cattle. The Waitrose grocery store chain buys most of his lamb, which gives him some protection from the EU export market. But he’s still worried about prices collapsing after Brexit, and he recalled the last time the EU shut out British lamb, in 2001, during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. “We weren’t able to export for about 12 months, so lambs that had been selling the year before for between £45 and £50 were selling for £28 or £30,” he said, adding that many farmers were wiped out.

Similar to a lot of farmers in his area, Mr. Williams voted to remain in the EU, but he believes the government should honour the referendum result and end the uncertainty. In a hopeful gesture, he recently signed legal papers to make his 21-year-old daughter a partner in the farm. When asked if she still wants to be a farmer, Mr. Williams smiled and said: “She does at the moment.” Then he paused, and added: “Farming is a long-term thing and it’s been through cycles. People have still got to eat.”

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