Tuesday 4 December 2012

Wishful thinking

The level at which the “discussion” between Cardiff and London over the European Union budget is occurring is disappointing to say the least.  To hear the politicians talk one would think that the only factor of any import is what structure gives Wales the largest sum of money.

It’s certainly true that Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding.  I’d prefer that it were not so, because the fact that it is true is based on failure not success – the failure of successive UK governments to address what are, at a UK level, “regional” economic disparities.  But whilst the consequential availability of EU funds is better than not having them, no government –either in Cardiff or in London – has exactly covered itself in glory over the application of those funds.  It often looks as though we’re just pouring water into the sands.
More importantly, it isn’t structure that determines how much regional aid we get, its policy.  The claim by opponents of the EU that the UK government could direct more funds to the poorer regions of the UK if it didn’t send the money via Brussels first is an entirely fair one.  The problem, though, lies in the word “could”.  The UK government “could” do lots of things if it wanted; but it has shown little propensity – under Labour or Conservative governments – to turn a “could” into a “would”.  No surprise at the lack of trust therefore.
But the EU’s current stance on regional development isn’t guaranteed forever either.  Like UK government policy, it can always be changed.  I can understand why people think that the EU policy is more likely to stay the same than UK policy is to change; but is that really the basis on which we should make a decision about our role in the European Union?  There’s more to the idea of the European Union than that. 
Both Labour and Plaid Cymru politicians have recently speculated on what would happen in a referendum on the European Union if England wanted out and Wales and Scotland wanted in.  I suspect that there’s a certain amount of wishful fantasising involved there; whilst the views of Welsh politicians and those of English politicians might seem to diverge on the subject, I very much doubt that the views of the electors will show anything like as much divergence.
Notwithstanding the arguments about economic interest – or perhaps because that’s the limit of the support the Welsh politicians can manage to express – I rather suspect that any referendum would, in practice, be about other matters entirely.  And whilst I’d love to be proved wrong, I see no real evidence that Welsh opinion and English opinion on the Daily Mail type of attitude to the European Union are really very different.

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