David Melding outlines why Wales must have a louder voice at the European table.
Wales has qualified for more than £5.5bn of European Union funding since 2000 (including a new allocation up to 2020 of £2bn) because our wealth, as a nation, is lower than the European average.
Our farming and fishery industries directly benefit from funding through the European Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies.
And Wales’s exporters benefit directly from the beneficial trading terms with one of the world’s largest trading blocks.
Off course, others may point to EU rules and regulations that hinder, rather than benefit, and call for powers to be repatriated to the UK government.
It is therefore clear that whatever your view, it’s undeniable that Wales is heavily invested in the European project – yet is Wales’s voice heard during the decision-making processes in Brussels?
It’s a great privilege to represent Wales at a Committee of the Regions conference – the body that represents the sub-nation state regional parliaments from across Europe – to discuss how we can strengthen the role of bodies like the National Assembly for Wales in the European decision-making process.
The status of regional parliaments and regional governments within EU treaties is weak.
These treaties currently focus on governments of member states (e.g. UK Parliament), and this is reflected in the structure of EU institutions and in the formal decision-making process, where national governments, national politicians and civil servants play the key day to day roles.
Furthermore, the current EU reform process is focussed on strengthening central control while improving the scrutiny role of national governments.
Proposals play little attention to the budgetary responsibilities of regional parliaments despite these bodies, including the National Assembly, having key spending and often revenue raising powers – and despite a worldwide move towards greater financial decentralisation since the economic crisis.
Opposition to this increased centralisation was demonstrated clearly across Europe during the recent EU elections, with that disaffection revealing itself with the rise in support for the more extreme parties on both the left and the right.
The kick-back was against an increasing perception of electors’ remoteness from the decision-making process and the isolation of those who make the decisions in Brussels.
That’s why political debate about the future direction of the European project is focused on reform and the need for greater democratic accountability, a stronger role for member states versus increased centralisation and strengthening of the Eurozone.
The UK wants to protect national sovereignty and repatriate some key powers. However, sovereignty is increasingly divided within the UK between Westminster and the devolved institutions. And some powers the UK Government may like to repatriate – like regional aid – some devolved governments want to remain European competencies. It is important that the UK’s Balance of Competencies Review reflects these changes to the British constitution.
This is an issue that the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, which I chair, highlighted in its recent report on Wales’s Role in EU decision making.
The Committee concluded that Wales does play a role in shaping EU policy but not in a systematic and coordinated way.
That is partly due to the failure of Whitehall departments to properly understand devolution, and the needs and interests of devolved institutions when negotiating at an EU level.
But there is also an onus on the Welsh Government to be more focused, clearer and proactive in identifying priorities for Wales at a UK and European level. Whilst the EU Institutions at a formal level are heavily skewed towards national governments and parliaments, the European Commission does have a high level of openness and engagement with the sub-Member State level, and the Assembly has benefited enormously from such access in its EU-related work.
The Committee of the Regions conference offers an opportunity to discuss these issues with other regional parliaments from across Europe, and I think the Committee of the Regions deserves much credit for its efforts to place a stronger emphasis at EU level on the voice of the regional governments and parliaments.
It’s important that Wales and the National Assembly is involved and takes a leading role in this debate. I would also like to say that in Rhodri Glyn Thomas and Mick Antoniw the Assembly has two very active members of the Committee of the regions.
It is an opportunity to learn from others, see whether there is any momentum for change and to find out how the Assembly can contribute to that change process.
Wales is directly affected by decisions taken in Europe and therefore it is only right that the formal processes and structures of the EU Institutions and decision making process should reflect and be sensitive to the realities of increased devolution and decentralisation of democracy across Europe. A changing union in the UK must be reflected in a changing union at European level, that gives recognition to the voice and role of democratically-elected bodies at all levels of governance.