Areas which collectively received billions in EU and EU enabled funds since devolution saw a party whose manifest objective is a British withdrawal finish second across many of its constituencies in this year’s General Election. UKIP’s Valleys insurgency chimes with earlier polling which found that voters in the area ranked as the most Eurosceptic in Wales.
Valleys Euroscepticism is not a recent phenomenon – Mid-Glamorgan registered the 5th highest “No” vote of any U.K authority in the 1975 referendum. Nor is it philosophically or empirically surprising. Areas which return centre-left members of Parliament can remain sceptical of national and international institutions, especially if they are seen as aloof and disconnected. This could apply to the Labour Party itself, as much as the EU. The failure of billions in European assistance to improve attitudes towards the union is not entirely unexpected either. While European funding has been generously distributed to Wales and the Valleys in particular, its penetration, impact and, crucially, public perceptions of its impact has been variable.
The overall impact of funds remains difficult to call, though some conclusions can be drawn. The aid has often been too widely distributed – as part of multi-authority deals – or too narrowly targeted and site-specific to generate multipliers sufficient to dimple the area’s deep structural difficulties. Its extensive remit, with the formal mission statement of Objective 1 being the “development and structural adjustment” of regions with lagging development suffered in having to draw from multiple funds with varying perspectives and timeframes. EU funding of almost £200,000 to improve the habitat of the marsh fritillary butterfly in Aberbargoed is a commendable scheme on environmental grounds, yet less so on ones of job-creation.
While the initial tranche of funding did exceed many of its initial targets, the headline indicators for the West Wales and Valleys region remain stubbornly below the European average. The poor baseline of much of the region and the constraints of the current devolution settlement also play a role. Unlike Ireland, which was fast evolving into a “Celtic Tiger” when it became eligible for Objective 1, Wales lacked control over crucial fiscal policy levers. The Valleys were far more reliant on now obsolete hegemonic industries and correspondingly face structural unemployment far deeper than the post-industrial areas of England.
Inconsistent oversight and reporting has probably not boosted public perceptions either. While evaluations of European funds have come to mixed conclusions, it is invariably the more polemical judgements which dominate the discussion. Figures on European funding are not produced at the local authority level. Further and more detailed reporting – expanding on that already produced by the Welsh European Funding Office – would not only create the maximal incentive for program improvement, it would trumpet the achievements and possibilities of European aid when they occur. People need to see and hear about tangible benefits in their communities, rather than simply read about aggregate spending across more than 60% of the Welsh landmass.
There is a limited window of opportunity to correct this imbalance, but at a minimum, an E.U. charm offensive in Wales is sorely needed. Its rhetoric should eschew both abstract notions of pan-European solidarity as well as technocratic talking points. An optimistic, though pragmatic and utilitarian pro-European message is ideal for the Valleys.
What would happen to the billions in ongoing and scheduled assistance to the area in the event of a Brexit? Would a British government run by a largely English party in a time of tightening budgets commit funds to an area it has no meaningful presence in? Would a Welsh Government which abolishes its signature regeneration scheme for the area 6 years ahead of schedule be willing or able to distribute resources there? These questions may defy simple answers, yet the issues they raise have major implications for the future of Wales’ former industrial areas and their place in two changing unions. They deserve to be asked.