The Welsh national interest


Article published on today's Click on Wales blog by Jill Evans MEP

Recent events in the global economy and the crises in the Euro (and Sterling) zones have highlighted, more than ever, the case for identifying and promoting the Welsh national interest. By a long chalk, this is not the same as the British one. At all levels, whether it be international affairs, shared cultural values and now, overridingly, economic considerations, we must understand and stand up for our real interests as a nation.

The election of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government at Westminster in 2010 had within it the seeds for destroying the UK’s relationship with its neighbours and trading partners in the rest of Europe. The Conservative European agenda was clear to see when they chose to leave the European People's Party (EPP) - the mainstream grouping of centre-right parties in the European parliament - in 2009. So no real surprise last week then, when this government was the only one out of 27 to withdraw from a joint plan to stabilize the Eurozone.

Liberal Democrats MPs, most of whom are genuinely pro-Europe, were completely side-lined by their more dominant Tory partners – and didn’t even feature in the decision-making. But in Wales, as well as the Tories’ isolationist attitude to the EU, we have the added burden of being stuck with a Labour Government in Cardiff Bay, which has no real economic plan for Wales during, or after, this economic crisis, nor a willingness to understand, let alone defend, our national interest.

During this crisis, there is, above all, a need for solidarity and strong joint action. I heard a lot in the European Parliament last week about the lack of UK solidarity with other EU member states. This is certainly and justifiably deeply felt (one dreads to think of what will happen to UK calls for solidarity when the crisis hits the Sterling zone). But, it’s clear to me that this UK government has no solidarity with us in Wales either!

The UK position has genuine repercussions for Welsh families’ income and job prospects. Most obviously, in the European Parliament we are currently negotiating the next round of structural funding for 2014-2020. Between 2007 and 2013 this programme will have provided almost £2 billion from the EU to Wales. Furthermore, over 80% of our farmers receive direct payments through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). These EU funding mechanisms are especially important to Wales because, as is well documented, we have some of the highest poverty levels in the EU, let alone the UK. After Plaid Cymru battled for many years, there is now a mainstream consensus that we are underfunded by the UK to the tune of £300 million every year under the dreaded Barnett formula . This means that EU funds are really just plugging the deficit bequeathed to us by the British state, contrary to their intended purpose of being used as "added value" to help raise ourselves out of relative poverty. The list of projects here that never go ahead because of this sleight of hand is countless. UK policy in this regard stifles initiative.

Contrary to the Welsh national interest, both the current UK Tory/Lib Dem government - and its Labour predecessor - have argued that the EU should no longer administer structural funds. They want this money retained in London (not even Cardiff). We know from past, bitter experience that there has never been an effective UK regional development policy since the end of World War II. We would, therefore, see little of that ‘repatriated’ money. It would, instead, disappear into the bottomless pit of the UK deficit or be frittered away on wasteful prestige projects from which we would see no benefit here. EU funds are definitely in our national interest.

An isolationist UK in Europe is bad news for Wales in other ways. Our main export partners are in the Eurozone. Distancing us further from Europe jeopardises Welsh businesses and jobs, with negative economic and social repercussions on our enterprises and communities.

What last week's actions highlighted more than ever is that Wales needs to have its own distinct voice within EU institutions. Crises demand radical rethinking and seizing new opportunities. There are demonstrably many economic benefits of being a small, independent state in Europe. My commissioned report on The Flotilla Effect strongly makes that case No coherent argument has been made against it. Despite the misleading ‘clash of the Titans’ headlines that scream at us daily via the UK media, in reality the small and medium sized states have the majority vote in the Council of Ministers. As a member state in its own right, Wales would be at the “summits” always defending the Welsh national interest, but in a spirit of European solidarity. We would never have David Cameron voting on our behalf. He represents and battles for the narrow interests of the City of London. Instead of rewarding the bankers who got us all into this mess in the first place, we would support proper regulation of the financial markets, a financial transaction tax and democratic oversight of EU treaties. We would always vote in favour of our vital manufacturing sector and to benefit from the proper exploitation of our almost boundless natural resources. We would oppose wasteful public subsidies to the armaments and nuclear corporations and, instead, promote the industries we need here and sectors we cherish to achieve sustainable growth and spread prosperity across the country.

Wales is a European nation. We live in Europe, we trade with Europe, we travel in Europe and we speak two European languages. It is, therefore, right that the people of Wales should have a direct say in this debate on the future of Europe. But while the European debate takes place the referendum debate in Scotland will determine the very constitution of the UK. The nightmare of a permanent Conservative government in a “United Kingdom of Southern Britain & Northern Ireland” makes the choice even clearer for us.

The present UK state’s reputation has been damaged by its recent actions. If the UK is to have less of an influence in the EU, it means its territorial jurisdiction will be a less attractive proposition to existing and emerging global powers in terms of trade. Consequently, Wales' international trade links are potentially damaged, and our prospects of business growth are also seriously hampered. The practical, realpolitik response is for Wales to play its full part in European democracy through self-determination, as it becomes ever clearer that we cannot rely on support from the British state.

We urgently need to construct a clear definition of the Welsh national interest grounded in the realities of the 21st Century and use all the levers of power we can acquire in Europe and globally to promote that paramount goal. No one else will do it for us.