I can understand why the First Minister would come out demanding that Wales doesn’t lose a penny in regional aid following Brexit, and that the UK Government should commit to making up the difference. It’s a natural response, given the sums involved and the number of important projects which depend on this funding. But hold on a minute – didn’t we just, effectively, vote against the whole principle of regional aid, even if wasn’t put that way?
As one of the EU’s richest member states, the UK contribution was higher than the amounts received back in payments such as the budget rebate, farm subsidies and regional aid. That ‘disparity’ was one of the core arguments of the Brexit brigade. No-one on the Remain side took the trouble, as far as I can recall, to explain the reasons for that, let alone to defend it. But there are a number of reasons for the disparity, and it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider what that ‘excess’ payment was spent on before assuming that it will automatically now be available to spend.
For instance, some of it went on those apparently hated ‘eurocrats’ – you know like the people that manage the CAP, negotiate trade deals and other agreements, and manage the single market. We won’t need them any more, will we? Well, not exactly... Let’s take the case of trade negotiators. For the next two years, we will still be paying our share of the EU costs of employing such people, so that they can negotiate with the UK as well as the rest of the world – and we will also need to recruit and pay more of our own civil servants to negotiate with them, whilst at the same time, negotiating our own deals with the rest of the world. That latter cost won’t come to an end in two years’ time either – we’ll need those skills for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the cost of doing this sort of thing for the UK alone is inevitably going to be higher than it would be if the cost was shared between 28 states. Bang goes part of the ‘spare’ money. And that’s just one example.
But more importantly, a lot of the EU budget is spent on attempting to redistribute wealth, from the richer areas to the poorer. One can argue (and I certainly would so argue) that this hasn’t always been spent well or effectively, (although that’s generally more to do with those receiving the largesse than with those dispensing it) but Wales is far from being the only poor area of the EU, nor the only beneficiary of the EU’s attempts at redistribution.
Further, anyone who was really serious about wanting to slow migration within the single market would be arguing for more redistribution, not less. All the talk about people moving from areas of low economic activity to areas of high activity has focussed on the impact on the receiving countries, but if there is a part of the UK which should realise more than any other area how badly such migration impacts the areas from which people migrate, it is surely Wales. Isn’t that loss of young working people exactly what we have been suffering from for decades?
But back to the point – to argue that we should not contribute more than we get back (which is what the leavers were doing) is in essence to argue against the very principle of redistributive policy. It is to argue against the richer helping out the poorer.One doesn’t need to take much of a look at some of the Brexiters to understand that arguing that the rich should keep what they have and not share it is probably instinctive and natural for them. So, regardless of what they said during the campaign, why would anyone believe that people who are against the whole concept of redistributing wealth are suddenly going to be generously in favour of it within the UK? Worse, why do they even need to, when the people of Wales themselves have voted to support that sort of economic selfishness?