Part of the problem with the whole debate about Wales and the EU is that the pro-EU side seems to be trying to frame it in purely economic terms. They argue that Wales would lose all the European funding that we currently receive. It’s true, but it’s an essentially negative argument. In fact it’s not dissimilar to the Project Fear approach of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland last year, concentrating on what Wales would lose financially by leaving – rather surprising, when you look at some of those making the argument.
The anti-EU side can quite rightly counter that argument by pointing out that the EU money can be considered to be UK money simply passed through Brussels and recycled, and there’s no fundamental reason why the UK couldn’t simply pass the money directly to Wales. Whether they would or not is a rather different question, but an argument based simply on trusting Brussels more than London isn’t exactly an inspiring one. And it is, again, in essence a negative argument.
But the economics of the situation will, I suspect, turn out to be a sideshow. Those arguing for or against continued membership based on who’s right about the sums will probably get most of the media coverage. But the motives which are likely to sway voters are much darker issues such as migration - matters of the heart rather than of the head. Cameron, in an attempt to appease people in his own party, is taking the UK to the brink of a decision made more on the basis of xenophobia than on a hard-headed economic analysis, and the forces he has unleashed are unlikely to be countered by arguments about grants.
There is a sense in which the problem stems from the mindset of the UK from the outset, and the gulf between that and the mindset of the original founder members. The EU’s architects saw the EU as a way of integrating the economies and polities of Europe to ensure that there could never be another war like the two which ravaged the continent in the 20th century. UK politicians have, from the outset, seen it as a simple trading arrangement. Perhaps De Gaulle had a point in twice vetoing the UK’s bid for membership.
What we are missing in the UK in general, and Wales in particular, is any wider debate about the objectives of the EU. Peace, stability, and prosperity in a continent bound together economically was the original objective, and it’s not a bad starting point. Many Welsh nationalists, me included, were highly sceptical of the idea of membership from the outset. Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about all the reservations that I had, I have, like many others in Wales, come to see the EU as potentially a bastion against the dominance of a particular language and culture, and a context in which smaller nations can play a part in a wider whole on their own terms – i.e. the argument long ago stopped being primarily an economic one.
From that standpoint, I’m actually keener than Cameron on some form of renegotiation of the underlying treaties (although I accept that isn’t difficult – I’m not really convinced that he wants any serious change). The change that I want, however, is a very different one. “Internal enlargement” is a key issue for the future, and a change to the treaties which formally recognised that as a possibility would facilitate a move towards the sort of Europe that I’d like to see. I don’t see it as a likely outcome of any negotiation though; too many of those participating in the discussions are bitterly opposed to it, and I don’t see any country likely to argue for it.
That doesn’t mean that internal enlargement won’t happen. I’m not sure at this stage who’ll be first to try it, although Catalunya looks to be the front-runner currently. But it’s the sort of change which will happen as a pragmatic response to events rather than through any up-front negotiation. And once the door has been opened...
The question for nationalists in Wales is whether we see our future as part of a Europe which is inevitably headed towards both greater federalism and greater autonomy for historical nations and regions, or whether we want to see ourselves in some sort of “fortress Britain” which is likely to be the political, as well as economic, result of a decision to leave the EU. A forward-looking European nation, or a part of a backward-looking British state.
All of my instincts lead me to the former of those options, whilst the latter fills me with horror. But the 'nationalist' argument to date seems to concentrate on which is the best place to hold out our begging bowl - Brussels or London. If we follow that path, we are en route to the second option. If we want to avoid that fate, we need to be making the arguments for the first option much more coherently than has happened to date, and largely forget about the details of European funds.