Cardiff Letter: Where do the Welsh stand on Brexit divide?

Wales has taken a Eurosceptic turn and appears split on leaving the EU

Some in Wales blame EU state aid rules for the decline of the steel industry and the crisis surrounding the Tata steel plant in Port Talbot

Some in Wales blame EU state aid rules for the decline of the steel industry and the crisis surrounding the Tata steel plant in Port Talbot

 

It was sweltering outside but the room at Cardiff’s Old Library was filling up as fast as the bottles of white wine in a vast ice bucket were emptying. This was a referendum event with a difference, one of a series of meetings around the country organised by an academic initiative called the UK in a Changing Europe, aimed at satisfying the public’s self-proclaimed hunger for facts.

This evening’s event, run with Cardiff University’s Welsh Governance Centre and the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, is looking at issues specific to Wales. It features three panels, each with representatives from the Remain and Leave campaigns, along with an academic expert to present the facts.

Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are expected to vote comfortably to remain in the EU, Wales is evenly divided on the referendum. A YouGov poll for ITV Wales and Cardiff University this week found 41 per cent in Wales backing Remain, 41 per cent backing Leave and 18 per cent saying they don’t know or won’t vote.

Wales has taken a Eurosceptic turn in recent years and last month saw the first Ukip members elected to the Welsh Assembly. Ukip appeals to the many economically disappointed and “left behind” in the former industrial and mining centres in the valleys of south Wales.

Some in Wales blame EU state aid rules for the decline of the steel industry and the crisis surrounding the Tata steel plant in Port Talbot. The Leave campaign make much of the fact that the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget.

Net beneficiary

As Cardiff University’s Ed Poole points out, that is not the whole story for Wales.

“England is a significant net contributor to the EU budget,” he said. “But because of the presence of two major European programmes – the structural funds and the Common Agricultural Policy – Wales itself is a net beneficiary of being in the European Union. We estimate that net benefit at £245 million a year, which is about £79 per person per year.”

Wales has 5 per cent of the UK’s population but receives 20 per cent of the EU structural funds that come to the UK. These funds support economic development, which is a responsibility devolved to the Welsh government. Post-Brexit, Poole said these policies would have to change unless the money from Brussels was replaced by funds from Westminster.

Rachel Minto, another Cardiff University political scientist, said it was a mistake to view the referendum as being about just one relationship, that between the UK and the EU.

Four relationships

“Instead, we need to remember there are multiple relationships at play because the European Union has established relationships with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “And these are relationships that are distinct relationships that are developed over decades and they reflect the particular size of these nations, their socioeconomic status, their key interests and also their policy preferences, which at times are distinct from the preferences in London.”

Minto said that, although the issues of devolution and the UK’s EU membership were often viewed in isolation, Minto said they are in fact deeply entwined.

“It’s interesting to note how the smaller nations, Wales among them, have used the institutional architecture of the EU to establish themselves or to assert themselves as a distinct European nation,” she said.

If the four parts of the UK are likely to vote differently in the referendum, a vote to leave would also have different consequences for each.

The most obvious and immediate would be for Northern Ireland. This came up at the Cardiff meeting, with a number of speakers expressing concern about the possible return of a hard Border.

If Brexit triggers a second Scottish independence referendum and Scotland left the UK, Wales would find itself in a new position as the much smaller junior partner to England.

“Like Serbia and Montenegro,” one man suggested.

Support for Welsh independence is currently in single digits, but Minto said that could change over time if Scotland leaves Wales alone with England outside the EU.

“Wales would become the junior partner in Britain,” she said, “and this is something that would certainly strengthen or ignite or fuel existing more low-level nationalism within Wales, so move Wales further towards thinking about seeking independence.

“These are the questions that are being raised.”

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