Wales at odds with London over referendum

Francesca Dickson says Cameron’s rejection of ‘an ever closer union’ could apply as much to the UK as the EU

David Cameron’s speech this week, committing to a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, has set in motion a series of complex political dynamics. Perhaps of most relevance to Wales is the impact that uncertainty surrounding the UK’s membership of the EU may have on Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014.

This may be an unintended consequence of Cameron’s speech. But it undoubtedly has the potential to undermine one of the main arguments of Scotland’s ‘No’ campaign – uncertainty around an independent Scotland’s continued EU membership.

The gauntlet thrown down by Cameron, under the dual pressures of Eurosceptic Tory back-bench MPs and the good fortunes of the UK Independence Party, has also put the Welsh Government firmly at odds with London. In itself this may not be a newsworthy occurrence. However, attitudes towards EU membership reflect broader, ideological arguments, and in this case serve to highlight competing narratives across the UKs constituent nations.

In the speech Cameron argued that it was not the objective of British people to forge an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. Instead, the UK’s interests were manifest in “a flexible union of free member states”. He promised a referendum in the next Parliament if the Conservatives win the General Election in 2015. In the meantime, the basis of the UK’s membership was to be renegotiated in an attempt to repatriate power to national parliaments, as the “true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”.

The reception of the speech has been mixed. Nick Clegg warned of “years and years of uncertainty”, hitting economic growth and jobs, arguing that it was “wholly implausible” to re-write the rules of the EU in such a way that they “benefit us and disadvantage everybody else”. Meanwhile, Labour made much of the fact that the Prime Minister was ‘dragged’ into the decision on a referendum by his own party and the electoral threat of UKIP, rather than a consideration of the wider UK interest. Business leaders have been split between the attractive prospect of reducing ‘red tape’ from Brussels, and the danger of an ‘uncertainty premium’ being factored into the costs of UK inward investment.

However, it is in the devolved nations that the ‘mood’ of the Conservative party over Europe sits most uneasily.  In Wales, First Minister Carwyn Jones responded angrily, arguing that the decision “plays into the hands of those who want to break up the UK”. Further, he said that “anything that puts a question mark over our membership of the EU is a mistake”, especially so far as the prospects for jobs and economic development were concerned. This rhetoric marks a continuation of themes that the First Minister has been expressing over the past few months, under the shadow of increasingly euro-sceptic narratives emanating from some quarters of the UK government. Carwyn Jones has argued that a UK exit from the EU would be “an unmitigated disaster for the Welsh economy”. Indeed, Wales has a significant interest in a number of European funding streams, particularly in those coming under the banner of structural convergence funds and the Common Agricultural Policy.

Beyond these direct sources of funding and the numerous European programmes from which Wales benefits from involvement (such as Europe 2020), the value of the European market to foreign investment in Wales is crucial. More broadly, there is a stark difference in the attitudes towards the EU in the Welsh and UK Governments. European policy, and membership, are not official competencies of the devolved nations. However, a legitimate devolved interest in European policy, where it overlaps with devolved competencies, was acknowledged at the outset of the devolution process in 1999.

In a speech at the London School of Economics late last year, Carwyn Jones speculated on the problems that would be posed following a referendum on EU membership in which a vote to exit was “carried by the weight of English votes against the preferences of other parts of the UK to remain in membership”. This scenario became a much more serious prospect last Tuesday.

It is in the Scottish context, however, that the potential implications of Cameron’s referendum become pressing. Most obviously, the decision undermines the unionist argument that a ‘yes’ vote would put at risk Scotland’s position in the EU. According to Brian Taylor, the BBC’s political editor for Scotland, it will now be much more difficult for the UK Conservative Party to challenge the SNP on this issue, which they have previously done with vigour. As he put it:

“Now what do the Tories say on this topic? Reject the SNP, stick with the UK – and we will offer you the prospect that a vote across the whole of these Islands may take you out of the EU, perhaps in contradistinction to the opinion in Scotland”.

The economic dimensions of this debate on EU membership may also prove to be particularly important for the Scottish referendum. In a report published earlier this month, the Scottish Centre for Social Research stated it is economic considerations that are likely to play a decisive role in the outcome of the Scottish referendum in autumn 2014. The report’s author, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University argued that:

“The eventual outcome of the referendum could well turn on which side is thought by the Scottish public to have the better of the economic argument – an argument that neither side seems as yet to have won or lost in their eyes”.

At the very least, the uncertainty spawned by Tuesday’s speech cannot strengthen the ‘No’ campaign’s cause in this regard. According to a poll published yesterday, support for independence in Scotland has fallen to 23 per cent, down from 32 per cent a few months ago. Of particular relevance in the context of the promised EU referendum, 42 per cent of people believe an independent Scotland would have a stronger voice in the world, down from 51 per cent in 2011. Yet, with the prospect of a UK exit from the EU, it seems plausible that this figure may increase significantly.

For the SNP, the neutralising effect on arguments questioning an independent Scotland’s ability to secure EU membership, combined with the uncertainty of Scotland’s European interests being secured if it remained in the UK, must serve as the silver lining in this week’s news.

If there is to be a referendum on the UK’s membership on the EU, and there are many intervening factors to take into account, it is at least five years away. The vote on Scottish independence, however, may well be affected simply by this issue being placed, firmly, on the UK’s agenda. Whether or not it plays decisively ‘into the hands of those who want to break up the UK’ remains to be seen.

When David Cameron asserted that the British people do not wish to “forge an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, it is far from clear that he was speaking for the UK as a whole. While it would be too simplistic to read across from the positions of Welsh Labour and the SNP straight to the Welsh and Scottish publics, the debates on Europe look and sound very different depending where you are in the UK.

Francesca Dickson is a PhD student with the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

6 thoughts on “Wales at odds with London over referendum

  1. I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that the attitude of Welsh voters to the EU is any different from those of voters in the rest of the UK. There is obviously a fair number who are against the EU otherwise Wales would not have a UKIP MEP. The reaction to the proposed referendum by some whilst predictable also sums up the lack of confidince in ideas and that fear factor which dominates much of Welsh politics. It seems to be based almost solely on the poltics of the begging bowl rather than any principle. In an uncertain world criticising the referendum for somehow creating uncertainty is frankly absurd and guaranteed to exclude you from any debate. Those on the Left who do support Europe have to become engaged in a debate which offers a chance to tackle the real crisis of the EU which is a complete lack of democratic legitimacy on the part of the Euro elites and economic stagnation. Anyone who wants to improve the lives of ordinary people and tackle the real issues has to talk about real reform. The trick is to take the intiative away from Cameron. That involves arguing for real reform for a start in the way in which we elect our MEPs. The present closed list system is really an insult to democracy. It also involves real reform of the CAP even if some Welsh farmers are losers. We also need a real debate about structural funds and the best way to maximise the use of the British taxpayers money which provides the finance for the structural fund programme. The vested interests who have been given well-paid employment from strutural fund money wouldn’t like it but that’s tough. Just moaning about uncertainty and talking complete rubbish about the breakup of the UK in the event of any referendum is, I’m afraid, a road that leads to nowhere.

  2. The ‘impact’ of political devolution is only beginning to become clear as politicians at the fringes are continually griping about everything, and our FM, for once is in the first rank in this category at least. There is surely a seperation between the need for a single market in Europe in goods and services (but not yet complete in the latter when we in UK are very strong), and the overly power grabbing from the EU in Brussels. We in the UK are a major market, and in physical goods are net importer from Europe, so why would would manufacturers on the continent want to lose our business. I humbly agree with JJ, as above in that the CAP is totally outdated, as it was originally intended as a vehicle for the Germans to repay the French for damages caused by a little incident called the Second World War. We must trade with the whole world, but do not have to delegate decisions on our lives to bodies outside our control. There is a continual drive by Welsh ‘seperatists’, of either the major or minor kind, to create the impression that Welsh interests do not coincide with the rest of the UK, and in particular the English who fund the celtic margin, and are net contributors to the EU which then squanders its money on pet projects. Why are the Welsh elite so frightened by a referendum on european matters, whilst seem to be calling them for minor Welsh issues at the drop of a hat. I couldn’t believe that in the latter they might win, particularly with help of pliant and subservient Welsh media, whilst they might lose in the former. Who once said “The only thing to fear is fear itself”. Bring it on and let’s have full facts and let the people decide!

  3. What does it matter how MEPs are elected since they have so little power. In the EU power resides with the Council of Ministers and, to a lesser extent, with the Commission. The same people who complain about a lack of democracy at the European level also fight to keep all prerogatives with national ministers, which means issues are settled by closed-door negotiation and embodied in treaties immune to democratic overview. Europe can’t be more democratic without being more ‘federal’ – a conclusion the English can’t swallow. But Jeff Jones is right that there is little evidence the Welsh think much differently.

  4. I’m not a supporter of the Welsh Labour party but Carwyn is right here. I do not want us to have anything other than a better relationship with europe and its huge trade potential, something that has not been been devolved fully.. However, I feel devolution is in the slow lane under Welsh Labour. We need to be taking control of our own problems here and helping our people engage with their politics more.

    Real change can happen through our Assembly.. Just not under Labour they seem to be trying to put up walls to responsibility, something the people of Wales want them to have. As their government it’s shameful really. But this is the first time he has really stood up for Welsh interests I just hope he has the back bone to see it through.

  5. “I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that the attitude of Welsh voters to the EU is any different from those of voters in the rest of the UK.”

    It all depends on the attitude of the GB Labour party in general and the Welsh LP in particular. If they were to campaign hard in favour of ‘stay’, pointing up the areas of the Welsh economy directly receiving EU money, Wales would be persuaded, and CJ is, has been, positioning himself to announce that Wales is not bound by England’s decision.

    The situation is perfect for Scottish & Welsh nats – we remain as we are, while England walks away.

  6. Cameron and the Conservatives are Separatists and English Nationalists, which, they tell us, is good.

    Welsh and Scots Nationalists want to separate from English rule – that’s apparently bad.

    Apparently England only ever invaded countries to subsidise them – all over the world. Aren’t they generous. They kindly killed anyone who resisted!!

    As for England supporting Wales economically – in 2011 the Welsh spending deficit (Westminster, Bay et al in Wales) was 3%. But the UK spending deficit was 10%. Let’s knock this myth on the head. If England really thought we were costing them money they would have got rid of us long ago. So fast we could still generate electicity from the risidual heat.

    Cameron and his kind don’t like Europe because they can’t stand the idea of equality with foreigners. Imagine that! Working with foreiners rather than ruling them. They continually refer to “England being ruled by Europe”. That’s the Council of Ministers and the Parliament. In other words you, me and him.

    Remember “Welsh” is just another English word for “foreigner”. If you don’t know that just look it up. German dictionary.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy