Thursday, 8 October 2015

What sort of Europe?

A former Secretary of State for Wales claimed yesterday that Wales, far from being worse off if the UK were to leave the EU, could actually be better off.  For what it’s worth, I actually agree with him – it is entirely possible that Wales could indeed benefit economically from leaving the EU.  I can’t be certain, though – and neither can he.  There are too many unknowns for anyone to be certain.
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.


Karen said...

'... 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 term'.

Two questions:

1. What is so different about Welsh culture compared to English culture? The Welsh language, yes, but the culture associated with this language arguably applies to only a very small percentage of the population. What about the rest of our culture? Isn't it very much the same as an English culture despite the myriad of myths upon myths taught in Welsh schools over the past couple of generations?

2. You talk of smaller nations. Do you mean existing smaller nations, historical smaller nations that may come to exist again or newly emerging smaller nations that have arguably never existed before. And where does Wales fit?

John Dixon said...

Two answers:

1. Who said anything about English or Welsh in this context? I was thinking more of the global domination of a monoculture emanating as much from the US as anywhere else. Many decades ago, Marcuse talked about 'One Dimensionalism' - if I try to summarise it in a line or two, I'll certainly not do it justice. But in essence, part of my nationalism has always been based on the idea of maintaining cultural differences in the widest sense of the word culture, and of resisting the tendency of one 'culture' to dominate. That takes allies and determination, and I think that Europe provides a context in which a combination of unity and diversity can provide that.

2. All of the above. Including Wales. And it's based on the idea that power belongs to the people, and people can create any units they want. And they can exercise any combination of powers that they want. We need to re-imagine the world in which we live, not be bound by what is.

Karen said...

Many thanks for the answers. Thought provoking.

Certainly I agree that the EU represents a welcome alternative to US dominance, cultural or otherwise. Mind, so did the former USSR.

As for 'smaller nations', arguably a return to tribes and tribalism, I'm not so sure. In the event that Scotland really does vote for independence does this mean that you would support the Orkneys and Shetland Isles in their quest to de-couple from Scotland? Or if Anglesey and Monmouthshire chose not to remain an integral part of an independent Wales.

Power to the people, yes and no. Yes, if if is power they are all paying for. No, if it means redistributing from the industrious to the oh-so-needy and determined greedy.

Spirit of BME said...

Ah! – How well do I remember the long, emotional debates that produced more heat than light back in the mid-seventies, when Plaid conferences where worth attending.
If I recall you were against the Common Market which was a simple trade association, which did harbour the seeds of the EU deep in its bosom, on the grounds it was a capitalistic club out to destroy workers and their protected status. I on the other hand ,as I do now , stood aside as I felt the debate in Wales was futile, as Wales was and is, not at the negotiating table, therefore the culture and values of and outcome would be framed around England`s requirements. The Left wing of Plaid fell into the usual trap of believing their input would have a definite effect on the outcome and their fraternal brothers and sisters across the border would hear their plea –fat chance.
Your post raises interesting questions and I like the last para in particular, at least you are honest and consistent on your position as we now see the Left, pro EU and anti-TIPP, which does have some very nasty clauses and should be rejected, but both raise the same issues.
One of Dr Phil`s arguments I remember and agreed with (the only one ,as most of the time his big brain was in la la land) was that he was against the Common Market, as when Wales achieved its freedom ( we were confident enough to talk of these things then) we would need to drastically change where power resides and be free to spread economic growth and wealth on a canton structure in which the CM rules would not allow, he sighted Norway rejection later, on their wish to subsidies Artic Farming as a case in point.

John Dixon said...


"does this mean that you would support the Orkneys and Shetland Isles in their quest to de-couple from Scotland? Or if Anglesey and Monmouthshire chose not to remain an integral part of an independent Wales."

These are issues on which I've touched before. What I would support, as a general principle, is the right of the majority in any geographical area to determine their own future, including whether and to what extent they decide to be a part of any other geographical entity. But that has to be accompanied by responsibility as well, obviously. 'Nationality' is not something which I believe can be objectively defined; it is inherently something which we individually define subjectively and if enough of us feel the same way then we give it a collective expression. And 'nationality' can and does change with time; structures have to be flexible enough to follow. It cannot be imposed from above; we cannot force people to adopt the nationality which we think right. And, clearly, that causes particular problems for nationalists who think axiomatically that Wales = nation = state. My nationalism is rather more fluid than that.


I was indeed against membership of the Common Market, seeing it as a capitalist club. And I haven't changed my mind about the fact that freedom of movement of capital and jobs is something more in the interests of capitalists than people. But two things have changed my perspective. The first is the very fact of membership for 40 odd years - the future which exit holds looks very different from the way it looked before entrance. Whether it's objectively that different is another question; sometimes looking at the same thing from a different perspective can make it look more different than it is, but simply provide a different insight. And the second, as I noted in the post, is that I no longer see it as primarily an economic argument.