This year Wales was scheduled to be part of a small but innovative EU project – Higher Education for Smart Specialisation (HESS) – designed to help universities to become more engaged in the development of their cities and regions. The fact that it never materialised was the first tangible evidence that Wales had been ejected from a European network on account of Brexit. This story never made the news because no one, other than the EU officials with whom I was working, was aware of the fact that Wales had even been selected to be a beneficiary of the HESS project. I mention the story now because I fear it could be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ of post-Brexit Britain, a harbinger of the realities to come even if the UK manages to remain in some EU programmes after 2020.
How many people realise that the UK government wants to remain in the EU’s research programme for example? The UK government made its position clear in its Brexit paper, Collaboration on Science and Innovation, stating: ‘It is the UK’s ambition to build on its uniquely close relationship with the EU, so that collaboration on science and innovation is not only maintained, but strengthened. Therefore, as part of the new, deep and special partnership, the UK will seek an ambitious science and innovation agreement with the EU that will support and promote science and innovation across Europe both now and in the future’.
The current EU research programme, Horizon 2020, runs from 2014 to 2020 and commands a budget of nearly €80 billion. The next research programme, Framework Programme 9, will run for another seven years and it may have a budget closer to €120 billion.
Why does all this matter to Wales? It matters because, whatever the Brexit deal, the UK will almost certainly participate in the FP9 research programme and this will be one of the main sources of funding for science and innovation after 2020. Wales will face two major problems in accessing FP9 funds.
Firstly, like the rest of the UK, it will have zero influence over the shape of the FP9 research programme because, while non-EU countries can ‘pay to play’ in EU research programmes, they do not have a formal vote over the work programme. In other words, post-Brexit Britain will be a rule-taker in science and innovation funding and not a rule-maker.
Secondly, EU research funds are allocated on the principle of ‘excellence’, in contrast to the EU’s regional aid funds, which are allocated on the principle of ‘need’. Worryingly, Wales has not fared particularly well in accessing EU research funds compared to England and Scotland or compared to even smaller areas, like the Basque Country for example. To secure more research funds in the post-Brexit era, Wales will need to redouble its efforts across the board – universities will need to be more proactive in forging research networks with their peers across Europe, businesses will need to be more engaged with cross-border R&D alliances and public sector bodies will need to become more competent and confident about addressing the global challenges that look set to be one of the pillars of the FP9 research programme.
The research programme commands so much attention because it looms large in the UK government’s Brexit wish list. This is not to say that the EU will accede to the UK’s wish list; indeed, the very idea of a wish list looks dangerously like the cherry-picking exercise that the EU has rejected in the negotiations to date.
But, as Hywel Ceri Jones and Geraint Talfan Davies have argued so well, Wales should aim to remain in as many EU programmes and institutions as possible – the ideal candidates being the single market, the customs union, as well as Erasmus+ for educational mobility and Creative Europe for the sake of our creative and cultural industries.
Whatever the form of our future involvement in Europe, Wales will need to forge deeper and stronger links with like-minded regions and nations in and beyond the EU. Forging robust alliances requires a step change in performance because Wales has not been one of the leaders in regional networking in the EU. One of the most influential regional networks is the Vanguard Initiative, a network of 30-odd European regions formed in 2013 that aims to build inter-regional alliances to support cross-border value chains in business and industrial clusters in emerging technologies.
The Vanguard Initiative (VI) is widely believed to be a model of the kind of inter-regional alliances that regions need if they are to stay abreast of innovation and development opportunities in the EU in the future. The VI has a political goal as well a technical goal.
The political goal is to obtain recognition for the important role played by regions in promoting innovation and development. To do this, it works to influence European innovation and industrialisation policies so that support programmes take into account the specific needs of interregional cooperation.
The technical goal is to promote regional alliances in particular technologies. For example, the Basque Country and Scotland are leading the VI project in Advanced Manufacturing for Energy Applications in Harsh Environments. Other VI projects include High Performance Production through 3D printing (led by Flanders and North Brabant); Nanotechnology (led by Tampere and Region Skåne); Bioeconomy (led by Lombardy and South-Netherlands).
Although the Vanguard Initiative is not well known in the UK, it is the most compelling example of the new geopolitical alliances that are driving innovation and development in and beyond Europe. Wales was late to the VI network, having just recently become a member, and this is worrying because being a latecomer could mean being a loser in the post-Brexit world.
Can Wales become a leader rather than a laggard in the international networking stakes? The answer depends on many things, not least political commitment and civic engagement.
As regards political commitment the Welsh Government will need to become more proactive in building international alliances with partner regions and nations. If this analysis is correct, Wales should retain a presence in Brussels whatever the shape of Brexit to enable it to be a well-informed player in EU programmes like FP9, Erasmus+ and Creative Europe. Beyond Europe the Welsh Government will have to seriously re-assess the costs and benefits of its international office network. Is the current network (shown in Figure 1) sufficiently aligned with the cultural and economic goals of Wales as a nation? And where and with whom do we wish to trade?
Brexiters are belatedly rediscovering the Commonwealth as an alternative to the EU. But in economic terms this is a comical notion because the value of UK exports to the latter is five times greater than it is to the former.
But economic alliances are not the be-all and end-all of international engagement. The Wales for Africa programme and the fact that Wales became the first Fair Trade Nation in 2008 testify to the enduring power of civic engagement, where schools, towns and professional communities have sought to twin with and help the poorest of the poor.
As Wales prepares to re-think its role in and beyond Europe, let’s try to remember that civic engagement is just as important as governmental action in connecting the nation to the wider world.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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