Wednesday 1 February 2012

Winners and losers

Yesterday’s report about Jack Straw’s little faux-pas echoes the report from last Friday about Wales’ contributions to, and receipts from, the EU.  Last week’s headline suggests that Wales pays more into EU structural funds than it gets back and is thus getting a bad deal; Straw’s case yesterday was that the UK is getting a bad deal.
Superficially, Jack Straw has a point.  If the UK did not contribute to the EU’s structural funds, the UK would have more money to spend on regional assistance within the UK.  I can’t argue with that; but it isn’t that simple.
The first complication is that the fact that the UK Government ‘could’ do something doesn’t mean that it ‘would’ do something.  ‘Regional’ assistance policy has been inconsistent at best within the UK over the decades, and I think we can be forgiven for suspecting that the UK Government might simply trouser the cash and use it to fund tax cuts, or wars, or whatever.  There’s absolutely no guarantee that we’d see any of it, which is the basis of much of the argument against what Straw said.
That raises another issue, though.  Is the fact that we might trust one government – the EU – more than another – the UK – really the best way to decide where regional policy should be made?  I don’t think it can be or should be.  It isn’t radically different from the argument put forward by some anti-devolutionists – they trust the UK government more than the Welsh one and therefore want power to remain there.  If we’re consistent, we should surely separate the issue of where policy is made from the substance of that policy.  We need a better reason than distrust of London to want the decisions to be made in Brussels.
Nor is it good enough to decide whether participation in the EU structural funds is worthwhile on the basis of a simple comparison of how much we put in and how much we get back.  On that basis, only the poorest countries would want to contribute – but there’d be nothing left for them to withdraw.  And that’s ultimately the whole point of the EU structural funds – the most well-off put in more and the least well-off get more back.
It’s fundamentally a question of whether we support redistribution or not – looking at it in terms of what we get is a much narrower viewpoint.  We tend to forget sometimes that the UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the UK; it is inevitable that the UK will therefore be a big net contributor. 
The problem for Wales is that we’re a poor region within a wealthy state.  We only get Convergence Funding (like Objective One funding before it) because of some creative work drawing a line across Wales in order to invent a region which didn’t exist before, and which exists for no other purpose than to qualify for the funding.
That shows the complexity of the issue of redistributive policies – drawing the right lines in the right places (and not necessarily following accepted regional or national boundaries) can make a huge difference to the perception of wealth and poverty without making any difference whatsoever to the actual wealth or poverty of the people affected.
There was one other point raised by the Open Europe report which has received little attention.  That is the extent to which the whole process is managed efficiently and effectively, and whether the same amount of funding could deliver more effect on the periphery with less bureaucracy at the centre.  I think that they have a point there; I just don’t agree that dismantling the whole policy is the best way of resolving it.

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