In 1975, the last time we had a referendum on membership of the EU (or the Common Market, as it was called then) I was very much on the losing side, spending a lot of time leafletting and campaigning against membership. Plaid’s slogan at the time was “Europe Yes, EEC no”, as I recall. It was an attempt to put a pro-European case against the EU as an institution, but it failed miserably. Part of the reason was that the nationalist case for a different type of Europe was drowned out by the Little Englander case against ‘Europe’ in general, but it was also because it was difficult to separate ‘Europe’ from the ‘EEC’; a difficulty facing campaigners still.
There were a number of reasons for supporting the ‘out’ campaign at that time. Some of those are still valid today, which I suspect is one of the reasons why some supporters of ‘remain’ are having difficulty making their case as positively as they might wish. The Treaty of Rome, which was the basis of the organisation back then, was seen as being a basis for a ‘capitalist club’; an organisation which would work in the interests of capital rather than working people. Some of us saw the whole concept of ‘free movement of capital’ as being a dangerous one for the interests of working people. And of course, for those seeking Welsh independence, the idea of committing to an even bigger union, with an even more distant centre, turning Wales into a periphery of the periphery, was deeply unattractive.
There are echoes of all of those arguments still being heard today, but there are a number of crucial changes which have led me, over the years, to change my opinion.
Firstly, and most importantly, there is the question of the alternative. Back in 1975, the rather looser organisation known as EFTA seemed to offer a credible alternative. It seemed rather more likely to many of us that an independent Wales would be able to join that organisation than to become a full member of the EEC from within. But that alternative no longer exists. EFTA has, effectively, been swallowed up by the EU, and the alternative to membership of the EU now is to be part of an offshore island state. It’s not a position from which independence is likely to look attractive.
Secondly, the EU has itself changed. From a group of six states it has become a continent-wide organisation, including many more nationalities and minorities. Multilingualism is the norm, along with respect for difference. It looks and feels like a much more natural home for Wales to be able to express itself as a nation than does a monolingual offshore state.
Thirdly, the tensions between ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are not limited to the UK. From the insular perspective of the early 1970s, the Welsh and Scottish battles for independence looked and felt like a part of UK politics; apart and separate from what was happening ‘over there’ on the continent. Today, the fight for an increasing degree of national autonomy looks and feels like part of a much wider European movement; the concerns and aspirations of nationalists in Wales are shared in a number of other places within the EU.
There are other points that I could make; and none of the above means that I’m happy with all aspects of the EU as it stands. In particular, I’d like to see more ‘regionalism’ in action, and a clear path towards ‘internal enlargement’ rather than an apparent determination to protect and defend the state boundaries and structures which currently happen to exist. But overall, I’ve become convinced that Wales’ future as a nation will be better served by working towards formal direct membership of the EU than by abandoning the whole concept and returning to the island state for which so many of the ‘Leavers’ yearn. For me, the EU is, at its simplest, a better ‘context’ for Welsh independence than a stand-alone UK.It is, in essence, a nationalist perspective on the issue; starting from a consideration of which of the only two alternatives on the table seems to offer the best chance of Wales joining the world. But it’s a perspective which is, sadly, hardly being mentioned in the campaign.