Europe: Should we stay or should we go?

Dylan Moore reports on the IWA Debate- Europe: In or out?

Amid high security and a palpable buzz of excitement around the Hoddinott Hall at Cardiff Bay’s Wales Millennium Centre, the IWA debate, Europe: In or Out?, could not have been more timely, coming the day after Prime Minister David Cameron gave his strongest hint yet that the in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union could come as early as this summer.

The debate, chaired by ITV Wales Political Editor Adrian Masters, and held in partnership with Cardiff University, brought together Wales’ First Minister Carwyn Jones and UKIP leader Nigel Farage for a head-to-head debate on whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU.

The ‘strongly held arguments on both sides of the debate’ referred to by Adrian Masters in his opening remarks were apparent from the first moments, as Jones and Farage dramatically made their way onstage from separate entrances on opposite sides of the room. As his many vociferous supporters in the audience might have expected, Nigel Farage began with a strong appeal to the emotions: ‘Do we want to gain independence as a Nation State?’ he asked in his opening remarks, ‘to become a normal self-governing nation… a true democracy.’ The UKIP leader was keen to delineate the continent of Europe from the European Union as a political entity. ‘It has a flag, an anthem, a police force and is hungry for its own army,’ he said, before turning his attention to some of the specific benefits, in his view, of an ‘Out’ vote.

Leaving the EU would ‘free up small business’, ‘allow us to stand on our own on the world stage’ and ‘crucially’ end ‘intolerable, unlimited EU immigration’. Farage predicted scaremongering from the pro-EU side, setting a bantering tone that would recur all evening by saying that according to some pro-EU voices, leaving would mean ‘we’d end up living in caves.’ He painted Brussels as ‘fantastic for career politicians’ but claimed ‘our political class don’t believe we’re strong or big enough to take control of our own lives’.

Waiting for Farage’s enthusiastic reception to die down, Carwyn Jones adopted a different tone. ‘Croeso i Gymru, welcome to Wales, Nigel,’ he said, before immediately attempting to discredit his opponent’s opening remarks: ‘If a politician gives you an easy answer to a complicated question, they’re pulling the wool over your eyes.’

The First Minister’s opening comments celebrated Wales as a place that ‘punched above its weight in the arts, culture and sport – and now in economy as well,’ and it was on the economic argument to remain in the EU that much of his argument rested. ‘Wales is part of two unions,’ he said, ‘the UK and the EU – and both bring prosperity.’ 43% of Wales’ trade is with the European Union. Jones claimed that ‘Nigel wants to turn the clock back; I want to look forward,’ with a message that suggested Wales’ future in Europe is crucial to its ‘role on the international stage’.

Carwyn Jones did concede that ‘neither union’, the UK nor the EU, is perfect, but stressed that ‘decisions are made by those who turn up.’ He made the point that 200,000 Welsh jobs depended on European trade – a statistic he was to return to numerous times during the following exchanges. He warned against ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ and claimed that for Wales, ‘a vote to stay in [the EU] would be the vote of a confident nation… at home in Europe.’

Adrian Masters then guided the two politicians through some of the ‘main sticking points’ in a half hour of direct exchange, before the audience was given an opportunity to ask questions. Both participants agreed that the EU needs reform, with a particular focus on the perceived lack of necessity for institutions in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. However, Farage was sceptical about the potential for reform, which ‘over there means ever-closer integration’ and disparaging about concessions gained by ‘Dave’ Cameron in his negotiations: ‘the only thing [he] has asked for is a reduction in benefits to migrants.’

Masters asked whether there are any laws that the UKIP leader would repatriate. Farage attempted to outline the EU’s power by referring to the 75% of German laws created in Brussels, to which Jones responded: ‘We’re not in Germany, Nigel.’ Sensing his advantage, the Welsh Labour leader pressed his opponent on why, if he was so concerned about EU fishing regulations, he had attended only one of 42 meetings of the EU fisheries committee of which he was a member.

On jobs, Farage claimed 25% of the working week for small businesses is spent dealing with EU red tape, a point that was countered not only by Farage but by former MEP and Liberal Democrat activist Peter Price with a question from the floor about which aspect of workers’ rights Mr Farage would abolish, allowing Jones to jibe that the UKIP leader is a ‘lapsed Tory’. Carwyn Jones chose, not for the only time in the debate, to use the views of some of Wales’ major employers as fuel for his fire: ‘Airbus want us to stay in Europe; Tata Steel want us to stay in Europe; their views have to count for something, Nigel.’ Farage viewed this as ‘scaremongering’: rather than ‘using Wales as their European base’, as Mr Jones had claimed, Farage believed ‘they invest in this country because it is the right thing to do’ – and pointed out that Toyota and Airbus have already promised to stay in the event of a ‘Brexit’.

Economic arguments dominated. Carwyn Jones said that ‘it makes no sense for Europe to fragment down’ in the face of competition from ‘big markets’ in China, the USA and India. The two men clashed over the specifics of the Port Talbot steelworks and its sister plant in the Netherlands. If Wales and the UK were outside the EU, claimed Jones, Port Talbot would be under further threat from global economic forces. He had, he said, ‘spoken up for Wales,’ and claimed Mr Farage had ‘done absolutely nothing.’ To loud cheers in many parts of the hall, Farage countered: ‘If it wasn’t for UKIP and what I’ve done, there wouldn’t even be a referendum.’

On farming, Jones repeated his argument that leaving the EU represented too much risk. The Common Agricultural Policy meant there was ‘money on the table for Welsh farmers now’; to leave meant ‘no idea what the endgame will be.’ Farage said that ‘Farming wasn’t invented here in 1975’ and reminded the audience that the ‘British Government supported farming before the Common Market and will support it afterwards.’

Immigration did not dominate in the way some might have predicted. Carwyn Jones began by agreeing that ‘it’s not racist to debate [the topic]’ but didn’t see that Farage’s repeated demand for ‘an Australian-style points system’ would work. The models held up by UKIP – Norway and Switzerland – have larger net migration percentages than the UK, although Farage argued that this is ‘their choice, and we don’t have a choice.’ Jones thought it much better ‘to work together’ on immigration policy, but his opponent contended that this argument is ‘utterly and entirely fraudulent.’ He reminded the audience that as a British citizen the first two words on your passport are ‘European Union’ and that as such we have the same rights as ‘480 million people.’

Farage argued that there was little problem until the integration of Eastern European countries – with lower wealth and health standards – into the Union, and also took issue with what he called the ‘terrible mistake’ of the EU’s common asylum policy. ‘One million people have been let in by Germany – soon those people will have German passports and the same rights as the rest of us.’ He thought this represented, among other things, a terror threat to the UK.

In closing, Farage brought the debate back to the ‘one simple thing’ he claimed it was all about. We could, he said, argue about whether the UK would be better or worse off in or out of the EU; ‘what is not arguable is that we will be a self-governing democracy… we might do it really badly or really well… I want to live in a free democracy.’ Responding to the UKIP leader’s claim that to be governed from Brussels was ‘not what those who went before us fought for’, Carwyn Jones reminded the audience that ‘the Poles who come here are the grandchildren of those who stood with us on D-Day.’

Views expressed from the floor were as strongly held as those on the platform; questions were often aimed at one politician in particular, even though both had to answer. Asked whether they considered themselves Europeans, Farage emphasised his admiration for the cultural richness of the most ‘interesting continent on earth’ and reminded the audience of his ‘wife from Hamburg’ and bilingual children, but also that he did not respect the EU flag or ‘say Sir to Mr Juncker’. Jones – a ‘proud Welshman, proud Briton and proud European’ – questioned any need to have to choose between identities.

One questioner brought up the broader sweep of history, asking whether the European project had brought peace and stability. ‘We’re way past any threat of wars in Europe,’ claimed Farage, asserting that the danger now was about power – and ‘the rise of really extreme politics of right and left’ (a comment that raised some chuckles in the auditorium). Jones characterised Europe’s history as one of war, stressing the benefits in creating peaceful solutions the EU had brought; he also raised ‘something we haven’t talked much about’: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic that would potentially cause a huge new problem should the UK leave the union.

Drawing proceedings to a close, Adrian Masters invited closing statements from both protagonists. These summarised the central arguments made throughout: Carwyn Jones said the debate was ‘about the money in people’s pockets’ which he was ‘not willing to put at risk. We want to be on the pitch, not in the crowd shouting,’ he said. Farage claimed that ‘we don’t need to be bribed – with our own money – into some kind of political dependency. Let’s stand up for our birthright [and] regain our democracy.’

To watch the IWA debate, please click here. 

Dylan Moore is Comment and Analysis Editor at the IWA.

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