Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones didn’t try to duck the clear sense of uncertainty swirling around the United Kingdom during a visit to Atlanta in early September. 

Rt. Hon. Carwyn Jones

He was candid, admitting that no one knows the outcome of post-Brexit negotiations and that Wales’s “red line” — retaining single-market access to the European Union — is by no means a given. The stakes are high, he said. 

“We cannot afford to find ourselves in a situation where (World Trade Organization) rules apply as we try to access the European market because many of our businesses are in Wales because it is their gateway to Europe,” Mr. Jones said during a reception at the residence of British Consul General Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford.

Still, he focused on what he could guarantee, regardless of how the political drama plays out in the coming years. 

“I can say to you that we will always work very closely to those who bring quality jobs into Wales,” Mr. Jones added. “You are as welcome as you ever were, Brexit or no Brexit.”  

The country of 3.1 million people on the western edge of the island of Britain relies heavily on its access to Europe, especially for the more than 250 U.S. companies operating there. 

“We can still do that even outside of the EU as long as we have access to the single market. That’s the bottom line. That’s a red line for us,” he said. 

An economy once dependent on its massive coal finds and the steel industry that arose around them has evolved (through painful economic convulsions in the 1980s) into an open economy where heavy industry is still welcome, but where tourism is now the leading sector. Digital enterprises grew by 9.2 percent last year. 

During its painful periods, the Welsh government learned that it doesn’t want just any jobs; investments in education, workforce training and apprenticeships reflect a focus on attracting the kinds of skilled positions that make companies put down roots, Mr. Jones told Global Atlanta in an interview. 

And that’s happened: Airbus has a major wing manufacturing program in Wales. GE makes aircraft engines and operates health care businesses (prompting a visit to Cincinnati on this trip to the U.S.) Ford has an engine plant. And despite Europe’s dog days, inbound investment in Wales is at a 30-year high. 

One of its big recent wins (much to the chagrin of Georgia and other U.S. states courting the luxury auto maker) was an Aston-Martin plant that was rumored at one point to be bound for the United States. Helping land the deal was the Welsh government’s sense of collaboration with its private-sector partners and a unique facility in St. Athan: an old air force hangar with a runway attached where clients can fly in to customize their new DBX.

Mr. Jones was studying the success of Atlanta during his brief visit, before jetting off to Cincinnati and Chicago. It was his first time in the city, and he spent time with Mayor Kasim Reed along with Georgia officials, learning about how they work with the private sector and their universities and technical schools.  

“I think he’ll be taking some of those ideas home with him to Wales to further improve on the great business environment that Wales has,” Mr. Pilmore-Bedford said at the reception. 

But Mr. Jones was also here to send a message: Wales remains open for business and eager to engage with American companies. 

At the time, new British Prime Minister Theresa May had yet to announce the timeline for invoking Article 50, the part of the U.K.’s deal with the EU that kickstarts the process of separation. Mr. Jones’s expectation that it would be done early in 2017 was buttressed by Ms. May this week, when she announced that the government was shooting for next March. 

During the interview with Global Atlanta, Mr. Jones outlined a few clear goals: Wales and the other devolved U.K. governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland should be able to vote on any deal the U.K. reaches with Europe, mostly because certain powers still lie only with their them. 

“For me, what’s important is that any deal that’s on the table is ratified not just by the U.K. but by the four parliaments, and there are rational reasons for that. You look at farming and fisheries, for example, and the U.K. doesn’t actually exist. It’s entirely run by the four different governments in their own nations.” 

He also had an idea (first posited by someone on his staff, he says) for how to strike a deal that would provide access to the EU market while closing British borders to immigrants from around the bloc, a key goal for those who voted to leave.

In the 1990s, the U.K. was in some cases seven years ahead of other EU nations in permitting entry for immigrants from newly acceded Eastern European countries. Why not have a seven-year closed border period until they’re “caught up” with the U.K.? he wonders. (It’s unclear whether the policy proposal has gotten any serious consideration at in the U.K. pariament.) 

Either way, immigration was only one factor in the Leave campaign’s 52-48 victory in Wales, which mirrored the national ratio. Low-skilled immigration, mostly, has displaced some jobs. But the discontent that has engendered has a deeper root, in his opinion. 

“At the heart of the Brexit vote was a protest against, I think, insecurity. People remember the days where there were secure jobs, well-paid, with a pension at the end, and there are fewer of them,” he told Global Atlanta. “People ask the question — why did my father have that, but I don’t have that? Where is the improvement in my life as a result of that?”

This angst — the disconnect between the political and working classes — make it harder to envisage a reopening of the Brexit question through a future referendum, he said, driving home again the importance of the single market and the voice of the devolved parliaments in the negotiations. 

Brexit provides the occasion for them to continue asking questions on unity and about how the United Kingdom appropriates money, he said.  

Of the heads of the U.K.’s four governments, Mr. Jones is literally the last man standing, as Mr. Pilmore-Bedford quipped while introducing him. Scotland and Northern Ireland both have female first ministers, and the United Kingdom overall has Prime Minister Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron after the Brexit vote. 

Mr. Jones didn’t mind the joke, and in fact went on to reveal his own sense of humor, opening his remarks in Welsh (famously unintelligible to English speakers) before switching back to English to describe how the languages descended from separate dueling peoples fighting for control of Britain. 

“We weren’t so successful at holding the territory,” he joked.

That could one day change, if the Welsh flag is a portent. Mr. Jones says legend has it that the wizard Merlin saw in a dream a red dragon fighting a white one in the sky. He took it to mean that the Celts (Welsh ancestors) would one day retake the island from the Saxons (from whom English speakers descend.)

“The Welsh government has no current plans to implement this prophecy,” he said to laughter from the audience.

He closed with assurances that the government will provide any assistance businesses need, and that this process can start before companies even leave Atlanta: Wales has a trade and investment office here, staffed by Erica Stevens and hosted at the U.K. consulate general. Contact Ms. Stevens at Erica.Stevens@wales-uk.com.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...