On Wednesday 30th January the National Assembly for Wales held a ‘Debate by Individual Members’ on Wales’ relationship with the European Union. Aside from myself, the debate was tabled by Simon Thomas (Plaid Cymru Regional Member for Mid and West Wales) and David Rees (Welsh Labour Member for Aberavon) – with the additional support of 14 Assembly Members from our three Parties. Sadly no one from the Welsh Conservatives felt able to give their support in advance.
Our aim with this debate was simple. We called on the National Assembly for Wales to recognise the ‘benefits to Wales of being part of the European Union’.
Given the backdrop of UK politics – and the commitment of the Conservative Party to offer an ‘In/Out’ referendum should they win the next general election and negotiate new terms with the other 26(7) member States – there are many of us here in Wales who feel that the case for our membership of the European Union has not been made loudly enough.
This debate aimed to be a first step in the light of that referendum decision to make the case for Europe. And given my position as Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Rural Affairs, I decided to focus my arguments around the benefits membership brings to Wales’ rural economy and specifically the agricultural industry.
The agricultural industry forms the very backbone of the Welsh and UK’s rural economy. The simple, but depressing truth of the matter is that without the financial and environmental support offered by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) it is unlikely that a large percentage of our industry would survive.
Statistically we know that UK farmers derive around half of their total income through the CAP and that this works out at around £3 Billion to our farming bottom line.
Euro-sceptics are often quick to point out that support was available to our farmers before we entered the EU. While this was true at that time, it is inconceivable that any UK Government, especially a Conservative majority one in this current economic climate, would consider establishing a multi-billion pound benefits programme to support rural families.
Of course this does not even get into the issues surrounding payments for habitat preservation and restoration (of which the vast majority is done by farmers); and just as importantly, the vast sums of money we get from the Rural Development Programme and separate Structural Funds, which have provided the stimulus across Wales which would have otherwise been lacking from both Welsh and UK Governments.
There are those within UK politics who also like to drone on about the ways in which CAP allegedly acts to artificially inflate the market.
While this can be said to be true to some extent, the reality is that such mechanisms, would continue within the European market, even if the UK were to leave the Union.
These mechanisms would still exert an irrefutable influence over the UK, given how dependant we would continue to be on that Market for trade (just like Norway, which is still forced to pay €1.8bn into EU structural funds and an agricultural goods export tariff, on the terms many sceptics desire for the UK). In truth, the independence of a so called ‘fax democracy’ such as Norway is no independence at all.
But, despite this great residual influence, the UK and its agricultural industry would no longer be able to influence the decision making process regarding future reform to the CAP (and let’s make no mistake, the CAP reforms on the table now will not be up for negotiation in the next UK Parliament – they will be decided during this Parliament).
Put simply, to leave the EU would devastate our prime rural industries, and continually weaken them for decades to come. It would jeopardise the profitability of billions of pounds in trade, and it would weaken our international influence across the globe. Those who believe that Wales and the United Kingdom are better off going it alone in our increasingly interdependent world, or think we can pick and choose our international engagements – in an a la carte fashion – on the terms of an ever reducing minority view, are simply incorrect.
It is in our best interests to stay in the EU economically, culturally and politically. We back reform and further democratisation of the Union – but remaining a key Member is absolutely essential if our nation is to survive and thrive.
This belief does not mean that the debate should be ended in the UK, or that the public should not be consulted should a significant treaty change ever occur in the future. However, it does mean that our discussions should be based on the facts, and not on the desire to make political capital.
The way in which some factions within UK politics have handled this important issue is, in my view, hugely detrimental to our national interest – especially given the present sensitivities around our economic standing.
We should not be reduced to years of tying ourselves up in knots having arcane debates based some undefined objectives, which are in turn, based upon a negotiation which may never happen.
As a Nation, we need to grow up and get on with rebuilding our economy. To contemplate leaving the European Union at this time would not bring about some sort of National Epiphany – but rather a profound National Disaster.