Europe: In or Out? – a Debatable Debate

Dr Jayne Woolford and Dr Jo Hunt examine January’s Europe debate between Nigel Farage and Carwyn Jones.

Recent days have seen the Prime Minister meet with the Presidents of both the EU Commission as well as the Council, in an attempt to ensure that an agreement on the renegotiation package in February is still achievable. This would pave the way for a June 2016 referendum. Whilst Cameron conducts his meetings, the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have united to voice their concern about an early referendum. They are protesting against a June referendum date, on the basis that this would lead to a confusion of political issues and agendas, coming so soon after the May elections to the devolved assemblies. Something of this potential for confusion was seen at a recent ‘Europe: In or Out?’ debate, which pitted Wales’ First Minister and leader of the Welsh Labour Party, Carwyn Jones, against UKIP national party leader, Nigel Farage.

The debate, which took place before a sell-out audience, and was later televised on ITV Wales, was organised by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) in partnership with Cardiff University. IWA has been at pains to make clear that the debate’s focus was the EU referendum, and not the May elections to the Assembly – when UKIP may take their first seats. Nevertheless, the case was advanced by some that the other parties in Wales should have been represented in the debate. The Labour-UKIP binary representation narrowed the focus of the debate, and a wider set of voices from across Welsh politics would have reflected more adequately the evolving political spectrum in Wales. It would have allowed the full range of positions on EU membership and the EU referendum to be heard and enabled greater public understanding about the consequences of their vote and what the alternatives could be.

With the debate including two party leaders, one at UK level and the other at the devolved level, it was never quite clear as to whether it was playing to the internal political context in Wales or to the broader context of the EU referendum. For the First Minister, the focus, inevitably, was on what is best for Wales, with an automatic acknowledgement of the devolution context – and of Wales as a part of ‘the two Unions’ – UK and EU. The context of Wales as a devolved administration was meanwhile somewhat lacking in the arguments of the UKIP leader. Indeed, surprisingly, Mr Farage emerged unscathed and unchallenged from a direct comparison of Wales’ constitutional importance as a Devolved Administration with the town of Luton.

Though the debate did not specifically address Cameron’s four renegotiation ‘baskets’ –the key issues at stake in the current renegotiation agenda, the two leaders engaged over issues of competitiveness and immigration, and sovereignty concerns were also touched upon. Playing out in a Welsh context, the health of key local industries of agriculture, fisheries and steel were given particular attention, in terms of their ability to survive and compete. The First Minster stressed the reliance of the Welsh economy on trade and foreign direct investment stemming from participation in the single market, and on EU financial aid, asking why Wales would risk the unknown of a Brexit when it has clear known economic benefits from being part of the EU and is a net beneficiary? Mr Farage refuted the benefits of EU financial aid, arguing it is simply recycled UK money and often poorly spent, and asserted that without EU regulation UK small business would be able to free up their time and create more jobs, and that UK business could find new non-EU markets. A challenge from an audience member as to which of the social, employment and environmental regulations would be lifted in case of Brexit went unanswered.

Arguably, the over-reliance of the First Minster on negative risk-focused prophecies for Wales should the UK vote to leave the EU is unlikely to provide a convincing enough argument to persuade voters of the benefits to Wales of being part of the ‘two Unions’. Based on the campaigns in the Scottish independence referendum and Mr Farage’s perceived success in this debate, arguments that demonstrate a positive and forward-looking vision of national prosperity and achievement will be more likely to win hearts and minds. More generally, a head to head debate such as this could also be seen to be of questionable value as a mechanism for properly informing the public of the impact – whether positive or negative – of continued EU membership. Its format simply does not lend itself to ensuring that the claims made in the heat of debate are robust and reliable, which is all the more troubling given that the UK electorate is reported as having one of the lowest levels of knowledge and understanding of the EU of all the 28 member states. With possibly only five months to go until the referendum, there remains much to be done if the voting public are to have the opportunity to be responsibly informed of the consequences of a vote to leave or to remain.

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