Rhodri’s Window on the World

Geraint Talfan Davies listens to the First Minister’s valedictory listing of Wales’s international credentials

In what is sure to become only one of many valedictory speeches, Wales’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, last night spelt out how devolution had made Wales more, not less outward looking. With only three weeks left in office, in an address to the Welsh Centre for International Affairs at Cardiff’s Temple of Peace, he painted a picture of Wales’s engagement with the rest of the world that is rarely remarked upon.

On the eve of the publication of the report of the All Wales Convention, which is bound to spark a new bout of introspection, he set out a catalogue of developments that stand as Wales’s internationalist credentials.

Whatever caveats people may wish to enter about the First Minister’s catalogue – my personal one would be that we have not yet struck the right balance between sport and the power of the performing arts in carrying the flag for Wales – there is more than enough here to support the contention that devolution has been a liberating force in Wales’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Dealing first with Europe, he explained why in the early years of the Assembly it had been a struggle to gain official representation in the EU. Aspirations had fallen foul of the legal limitations of the Assembly’s constitution as a body corporate. It was this, he claimed, that prevented Wales, unlike Scotland, from having a Welsh equivalent of UKREP, the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels or, to use Rhodri’s inimitable phraseology, a TaffREP to join JockREP.

That was later rectified with the establishment of Tŷ Cymru in Brussels, representing the Welsh Government, the National Assembly, the Welsh Local Government Association and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

He pointed to his government’s involvement with the organisation representing ‘Regions with Legislative Powers’. Despite the Assembly’s limited legislative powers, Wales took on the presidency of the organisation in 2006. “They were more than happy to have Wales”, said Rhodri, “it was the French regions they wanted to keep out”.

He also claimed that increased recognition of regions in the Lisbon treaty was very largely a Welsh contribution to the process. It was, he said, Welsh officials who drafted that part of the treaty that will deliver ‘double subsidiarity’ – to state Parliaments and then to regions – because Britain’s Foreign Office did not have sufficient knowledge to do so. He said that this ‘traffic light system’ will allow regional legislatures to put a brake on EU Commission proposals if they see fit. The system comes into effect on 1st December 2009.

He was adamant that Wales was ‘an exemplar’ in the use of EU funds, though there have been plenty of critics of the use of Objective 1 and convergence funds, during their existence. Fearing that, after 2013, convergence funds would be switched to fund climate change measures, he thought that it was important for Wales to secure ‘tapering funds’ post 2014.

On language issues the Welsh Government had taken a lead from the Catalans to achieve ‘co-official’ language status for Welsh in Europe. Meanwhile, on the environment the Welsh Government had been a founder member of the ‘Network of Regional Government for Sustainable Development’ because, he argued, about 50 per cent of the duties on sustainable development will fall to regional governments.

Beyond Europe he clearly takes particular pride in the Wales for Africa network that has given practical assistance on pre- and post-natal care in Chad and Sierra Leone. He thought that the £200,000 that the Welsh Government had spent on these programmes had been the best value for money initiative taken in the whole decade of the Assembly’s existence, because it had saved the lives of countless mothers. He also claimed that Wales could boast one fifth of all the registered fair trade schools in the UK.

He thought this had been achieved through the Assembly’s capacity to release the energies of voluntary organisations. In a characteristically ebullient phrase, he said that all the Assembly had done was “take the cork out of the champagne bottle of civil society”.

Wales had also planted a flag in China, through the relationship created with city region of Chung-ching (population 31m), a relationship that he thought would be important for Welsh universities as the cohort of 18-19-year-olds in the UK declined by 25 per cent over the coming years.

He finished by emphasising that Wales’s future would rest on its base of skills, its infrastructure, quality of life, creativity and sense of identity. He thought that sport and culture would be key factors, citing the building of the Millennium Stadium and the Wales Millennium Centre, next year’s Ryder Cup, the attraction of Wales for national paralympic teams coming to the UK in 2012, and Wales’s presence at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington last summer.

Not unnaturally, Rhodri Morgan concentrated on the work of the Welsh Government in this field – often, decisions and funding that do facilitate international action by other organisations. However, the focus of the address implicitly underlined the need for a wider audit of Wales’s international engagement, and the impacts that can be achieved. It is very important that that engagement is not restricted to government initiatives but embraces every part of society.

There has been much scrutiny recently of the effectiveness of International Business Wales, and but there are other areas where we could do with a wider evaluation. Examples include the effectiveness of the international engagement of our higher education institutions, or our use, or lack of use, of our strong cultural sector in putting Wales on the map. The Welsh presence at the Smithsonian was very valuable, but it was a rare one-off initiative.

In drawing up its major events strategy there is more than a suspicion that the Welsh Government and its agencies have been mesmerised by the potential of sport at the expense of our cultural potential. Many would argue that Visit Wales shows few signs of really understanding the potential of cultural tourism.

There is no doubting the power of events such as the Ryder Cup. Much more questionable is the £2.2m spent on the Wales GB Rally – a huge investment in an event of limited duration and interest. A similar investment, say, in Wales Arts International,  or in the development of a major international festival of the arts might produced a more prolonged, deeper and more valuable impact on Wales’s international profile.

That said, a debate about our place in the wider world is a sign of a maturing society and hugely welcome.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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