Country trumps party in European Parliament

Reporting on some much needed collaboration between our MEPs in Strasbourg and Brussels

Welcome to Wales at Strasbourg and Brussels where all is harmony and collaboration amongst our four MEPs in the European Parliament. Which is certainly new and somewhat extraordinary given that they’re all of a different political stripe – Conservative, Labour, Plaid and UKIP.

Nonetheless, the fact that they are working closely together, and putting the Welsh national interest ahead of sectarian party concerns became clear at a meeting in which they addressed the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on Wales, held at the end of last week. There were differences to be sure. Kay Swinburne and John Bufton, the Conservative and UKIP MEPs, complained about the Treaty’s assault on British sovereignty and the absence of a referendum to endorse it. On the other hand Derek Vaughan and Jill Evans, the Labour and Plaid MEPs were more upbeat, seeing a democratic advance in the increased powers of the Parliament. However, where Wales was concerned the four were at one.

The body language said it all, at the meeting in the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay. Jill Evans and Derek Vaughan arrived late, and there were affectionate greetings as they took their seats. Jill Evans remarked that she had found the last year in the Parliament an immense change on the previous ten years when there had been virtually no communication between the Welsh members there. The other three all emphasised the benefits they accrued from working closely together.

Vaugham, Swinburne and Bufton were elected for the first time last year and so were not part of the previous regime, which had been dominated by Glenys Kinnock’s extreme antipathy to Plaid Cymru. Kinnock was first elected in 1999, along with Eluned Morgan for Labour. Jill Evans and Eurig Wyn were elected as the first ever Plaid MEPs in 1999, while the Conservatives had one MEP, Jonathan Evans, who since may has been MP for Cardiff North.

In the 2004 election, following enlargement of the European Union, Wales became a single constituency and Welsh representation was reduced to four – Glenys Kinnock, Eluned Morgan, Jill Evans and Jonathan Evans. But the dynamics remained the same. Glenys Kinnock couldn’t stand being in the same room as Plaid.

All has now changed, and much to Wales’ advantage. Each of the MEPs serve on different committees in the Parliament and keep each other fully briefed on developments– John Bufton on Regional Development, Derek Vaughan on Budgetary Control, Jill Evans on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and  Kay Swinburne on Economic and Monetary Affairs. They meet regularly and often socially as well, sharing information over a drink in the bars of the Parliament.

They’re gaining a reputation as operating collectively on behalf of Wales, with their country trumping party and their various political groups in the Parliament. The first outing last year was their campaign against electronic tagging of sheep so their movements can be monitored. Farmers protested that it was unnecessary and costly – each farmer having to invest £5,000 in an electronic tag reader and £1.50p per tag. The European Parliament adopted the decision in 2003, and the original start date was 2008, but was put back two years until 2010.

Our MEPs were unsuccessful in this campaign but are hoping for a more positive outcome for their lobbying that West Wales and the Valleys should continue to receive convergence investment after 2013 when the present six-year funding period comes to an end. Enlargement of the European Union has placed a question mark over Welsh prospects since the entry of poorer eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

However, the GVA of West Wales and the Valleys remains stubbornly below 75 per cent of the EU average, the current tipping point for funding. This is despite the significant investment that has taken place since the area first won Objective 1 status in 2000. For instance, Convergence Funding, and the accompanying 50 per cent match funding from the UK Treasury will drive £3.5 billion investment into the region in the present 2006-13 period.

So the stakes are high. Wales has never needed an effective lobby in Brussels more than in recent months, The decision on what will happen to the Convergence funds post 2013 is expected soon, possibly before the end of the year. It is good to see, therefore, that despite their political differences, our MEPs get on a lot better than they used to.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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