Expanding Wales’ international footprint

Owain Richards considers the priorities for Wales’ international policy and activity

New trade deals, closer ties with historic partners and a strengthened Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) form the basis of the much-discussed vision of ‘Global Britain’ –  a renewed, reinvigorated and more internationally ambitious outlook framed as a cornerstone of our post-Brexit future. This vision will, at the very least, require a more proactive international strategy to address the reputational fallout and damage rendered to ‘Brand Britain’ after our departure from the European Union. Discussion of the role and place of the devolved governments in this strategy, and the limitations of their international presence given the reliance on diplomatic representation through the FCO, has, however, been largely absent from the conversation.


Recent years have shown several promising signs in the development of Welsh international engagement. The Welsh Government published its first comprehensive international strategy in 2015 which has been followed by a gradual extension of the network of Welsh international representatives to reach 21 offices in 12 countries, mostly housed in existing FCO offices. The Qatar Airways Cardiff-Doha service is an important step in improving the international connectivity of Cardiff Airport through offering long-haul routes to high-growth markets. These developments are crucial to an economy which remains largely dependent on export markets. According to recent statistics, the total value of Welsh exports amounted to over £16,479 million in 2017 with 60% of these goods destined for countries within the European Union.


As the U.K. moves towards Brexit, Wales is entering a new phase in its global relations and requires a more defined structure for its global policy. Compared to international strategies in Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, Wales has substantial ground to cover. The Scottish Government, for example, currently operates around its 2016-21 Global Scotland trade and investment strategy and already benefits from a more extensive network of overseas offices through Scottish Development International (SDI) and is, due in part to international interest in its 2014 independence referendum, more widely known. Wales lacks neither the infrastructure nor institutions to develop a similar strategy – the Wales for Africa programme, the Welsh Centre for International Affairs (WCIA) and Welsh Arts International (WAI) are examples of existing initiatives which could be harnessed to help rethink our engagement abroad.


In a February 2018 trade policy paper, the Government underlined the need for a proactive strategy and highlighted a continued ‘overseas events programme’, inward visits, and a commitment to expanding Wales’ ‘international footprint’ as components of Wales’  post-Brexit policy. On reviewing the Welsh Government’s international strategy in September 2018, the Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee recommended the creation of a new ministerial role responsible for trade and international relations.  The inclusion of ‘international relations’ in Eluned Morgan’s new ministerial portfolio, and the recent announcement that the Welsh Government will engage with stakeholders and the public to develop a new international relations strategy in the coming months, is perhaps a signal that Welsh Labour is starting to respond and reframe their approach.  


The international offices themselves nevertheless remain controversial. The Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee stated that the offices need a ‘clearer purpose’ and ‘measurable criteria for success’. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) questioned the effectiveness of the Welsh Government offices, stating that they are under-resourced and ‘do not seem to have a tangible effect on export performance’ in their respective countries. Within the Assembly itself, the offices have been widely criticised for a perceived lack of accountability and cost effectiveness with the Welsh Conservatives more recently calling for the appointment of roaming ‘trade envoys’ to promote Welsh business abroad.


We must reframe this debate by instead emphasising both the necessity and value of these offices. The benefits of international representation are admittedly difficult to quantify and package politically as tangible returns may take several years to materialise as the more recent international offices and their networks mature. A singular focus on trade and investment also ignores their value in terms of ‘soft power’ and the contribution they may bring to devolved policy areas such as tourism, education, and culture through facilitating the sharing of international best practice. The offices, despite their cost, provide much-needed visibility in an increasingly competitive global market in which Wales currently punches far below its weight.


Some measures may nevertheless be taken to address current criticism. The Welsh Government could improve public awareness and accountability through providing further information on the offices, representatives, their remits and results. This could be achieved, for example, through simple measures such as the launch of a dedicated page on the Welsh Government website or further detail on individual offices on the ‘Trade & Investment Wales’ platform. The Welsh Government must increase ownership of the expansion policy through greater inputs from internal and external stakeholders – particularly Welsh businesses – as it reviews its network.


The leadership of Welsh trade policy could itself benefit from greater clarity. As Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns continues to play an active role in representing Wales and Welsh business. Although Carwyn Jones’ First Minister-centric trade policy involved frequent international travel, Eluned Morgan’s expanded ministerial portfolio may be an attempt to separate these international duties from the notably media-shy new First Minister. It is now unclear who retains leadership and competency in this area and whether Mark Drakeford will also represent Wales on international delegations. Welsh Labour must also ensure that their definition of ‘international relations’ avoids a focus on trade promotion at the expense of a more holistic approach encompassing active sub-national diplomacy.


Criticism of the international offices must be addressed by the Welsh Government to secure Assembly and public backing for any further expansion of the overseas network. More must be done to convince those sceptical of the cost, but the Government must more actively emphasise the value they bring. Wales must define its vision and strategy for international engagement as we enter a transformative moment in our global relations. If Wales wants to attract international investment, develop export markets and promote Welsh businesses abroad it needs to start thinking – and acting – internationally.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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Owain Richards is an international affairs researcher specialising in Europe and the Middle East North Africa region.

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