Helen Wales, Chair of Wales for Europe, hosted a fringe discussion at the European Movement's Virtual Conference 2021 entitled, The Future of two Unions: a view from Wales.
Wales reports on the panel, what we learned, and what we can take from it going forward.
Wales may have been the closest of the four UK nations to hit the average of the 48%-52% vote split in 2016, but you’d be wrong to think political debate here has kept to the middle of the road.
Whilst the Westminster pantomime and the urgency of constitutional questions north of the border may have stolen much of the limelight, Wales has very much charted its own course when it comes to responding to Brexit. This is true in term of national government, and how the fall-out has shaped our political landscape.
Wales for Europe’s panel debate at the recent European Movement ‘Building Bridges, Not Barriers’ conference explored this ‘View from Wales’.
Of course, there are many similarities with the view from other parts of the UK: huge impacts on industry, manufacturing and agriculture; concerns for port communities; reduced opportunities.
But the Welsh Government (currently Labour-led, with a majority ensured by the sole Liberal Democrat MS) has sought to plot a course that builds a closer and more cooperative relationship with the EU. It has taken a more compassionate approach to EU citizens’ rights and, most notably for many, it has also taken steps to compensate for the decision to leave Erasmus+ by designing its own replacement programme which includes youth work and bilateral exchange. Plaid Cymru has maintained a firmly pro-European stance, as has the Green Party of Wales, and the Senedd rejected the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in December.
"There is extreme scepticism that the "not a penny less" for Wales promise will be kept"
Our panelists drew attention to the now-undisputed attack on devolution from the Conservative government in Westminster. This is most clearly embodied in the UK Internal Market Bill, a piece of legislation which has now prompted the Welsh Government to take legal action against the UK Government. There is strong concern that the Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement to the EU Structural Funds, will bypass the Senedd and be used to serve the political goals of Westminster. Unsurprisingly, there is extreme scepticism that the "not a penny less" for Wales promise will be kept.
Covid has provided the 'Introduction to the Devolution' lesson that many had been missing. Whilst the Abolish the Assembly party may be getting attention from some quarters, the real surge has been in support for Welsh independence. The pro-independence group YesCymru has seen its membership soar from 2,000 to 17,000 in just a year.
Neil Schofield-Hughes, Chair of Cardiff for Europe, emphasised that this means pro-European campaigning in Wales, led by Wales for Europe, is operating in a very different political culture to our friends in other parts of the UK.
He drew attention to Wales for Europe’s call in The Future of Wale in Europe: Agenda for 2021-26. The document sets out a Welsh agenda for addressing the shortcomings of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and for the anticipated 2024 renegotiation.
Dr Giada Lagana, from the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, gave us a longer view of the question of UK devolution. She set out how membership of the EU has both empowered and disempowered sub-national governments and institutions, noting that in Wales, civil society and the Senedd have been very effective in taking advantage of the opportunities offered (e.g., through Structural Funding).
"Pro-European campaigning in Wales is operating in a very different political culture to our friends in other parts of the UK"
She also reminded us that the devolution project that began in 1997 was not designed to stop with Wales and Scotland (we’ll put aside the NI question for now). The English devolution project hit its first barrier with the defeat in the North East referendum. As Giada put it, this created an asymmetrical situation and constitutional change in the UK remained half-done.
Brexit has added a new asymmetry: Wales has lost opportunities from Europe, the Welsh Government has lost opportunities to represent local interests on the international stage, and Welsh civil society has lost an important means of getting its voice heard.
Dafydd Trystan, historian, political commentator and former Chair of Plaid Cymru, drew attention to the fact that YesCymru is now second only to the Labour Party in terms of its membership in Wales. Many suspect that the growth of YesCymru over the last twelve months is in part due to increasing support from dissatisfied pro-Europeans.
We need to remember, though, that a large minority (40% in ITV’s 2021 St David’s Day Poll) think we were right to leave the EU, compared to 46% who think we were wrong. There is still work to be done.
Dafydd also drew attention to a Conservative strategy which appears to be saying: no more politicians, no more chaos, no more constitutional discussions. This resembles ‘Get Brexit Done’ in content and tone. This should give pro-Europeans pause for thought - wherever they are in the UK.
"'Sovereignty' in the way it has been used since 2016 may prove to be a thin comfort blanket"
But what does all this mean for the future of Wales in Europe? Is the only way back to Europe as part of an independent Wales? Or can what is happening in Welsh politics be used to influence at a UK level?
The panel were optimistic, but realistic. As Neil said, the Johnson government is ambiguous towards Wales to say the least, with little respect for our institutions and a strong attachment to the symbolism (and symbols) of the union.
Dafydd emphasised that need to be able to influence the political centre, too, and keep watching the polls.
And Giada reminded us that Brexit has made it possible to discuss things that were seemingly ‘off limits’ before 2016 - for better and for worse. It has shown us, too, that we need to think carefully before acting. ‘Sovereignty’ in the way it has been used since 2016 may prove to be a thin comfort blanket as the consequences of Brexit on our international standing and influence become clear.
The panel agreed that soft power has a role to play, as well as education, alongside political agitation.
"We can build a better reputation as a partner and collaborator with our European allies"
In short, we need to continue to build a European - and internationalist - Wales.
The panel agreed that we have more space in Wales to openly discuss the damage of Brexit, and that we can talk about things that are often ‘blocked’ by political discourse in England. We can build a better reputation as a partner and collaborator with our European allies, rather than taking the bullish approach of the Johnson government.
Assuming the vote on 6th May delivers a progressive Senedd, this creates opportunities to have different conversations about our relationship with Europe in Wales. And conversations can lead to different actions.
If the last twelve months have taught us anything, it’s that Wales can and will do things differently.
If you’re focused on Westminster, we would advise you to cast your eyes to the west once in a while. The debate about Europe in Wales may well prove to be richer, more nuanced and more constructive.