EU Referendum: Senedd Debate

(Title Image: ITV Wales)

The forthcoming EU referendum still dominates political discussion…. Yes, I want it to be over as much as you do but I’m expected to cover it.

Although the Welsh Government are bound by purdah rules – meaning they can’t do anything official in the campaign – backbench AMs forced a debate on the referendum, and (AFAIK) it’s the only Welsh-specific debate due to take place before polling day.

Eluned Morgan AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales), Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) and Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) sponsored the motion, which was simple : “The National Assembly believes Wales would be stronger, safer and more prosperous if it were to remain a member of the European Union.”

A huge responsibility

 

Former MEP, Eluned Morgan AM, said the Welsh electorate had “a huge responsibility” to decide what nation we want to be and make a choice that would impact generations to come. Wales benefits more than any other part of the UK from EU membership. We get £79 more back from the EU than we pay in and EU funding has trained 200,000 people; we have no idea whether funding for these projects would continue, and Eluned wasn’t confident a right-wing UK Government would deliver it.

Companies choose to base themselves here because it gives them a platform to enter the single market. Farmers were “living in cuckoo land” if they think they’ll be able to export food – 94% of Welsh lamb exports went to the EU – without applying EU rules and regulations. According to the IFS, £30billion would be wiped from the UK economy with a Leave vote; the insecurity has already wiped billions from the stock market and reduced the value of the pound.

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) believes the UK doesn’t need to be in the EU to work with Europe . After a Leave vote, nothing would change for 2 years and there would be consultation with the devolved administrations. More money would be available as the UK is a net-contributor to the EU, and that funding would be accountable to people elected by Wales.

The Welsh Government can replace “badly designed”farming regulations and give farming and the environment the same assistance they do now; Norway and Switzerland – both outside the EU – currently give more support to their farmers than the EU does. It”s also in the EU’s interest to make a free trade deal with the UK. Mark said it was time to “put sovereignty before the scaremongers” and take our UK back.

Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) began with a cryptic tale about The Clash, leather trousers and hearing loss. One benefit of EU membership he highlighted was that funds are allocated to regions with the greatest need – like West Wales & The Valleys – to a level beyond that which we put in. Anyone arguing for Leave was arguing for less development funding or “had secret talks with the Chancellor” that revealed funds would be maintained or boosted. Huw said the money goes towards real improvements, citing Maesteg Market’s revamp and the renovation of Llangynwyd Hall in his own constituency.

“Project Fear isn’t working”

UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), said Labour AMs hadn’t caught up with the news that “Project Fear isn’t working”. Up to £10billion could be added to the projects mentioned with an EU withdrawal. The EU was an “economic dead-end” that only counts for 15% of UK trade, with other parts of the world “roaring ahead”. The idea the UK would be excluded from EU trade with a Leave vote was “nonsense”. This vote was about taking back control and giving power to people we can elect and dismiss.

In Dawn Bowden AM’s 30 years experience as trade union official she’s seen what benefits EU membership provides, like limits on working hours, workplace safety and maternity/paternity rights. The last thing Welsh workers need is Tories being given an opportunity to attack employment rights. EU funding in Merthyr has helped over 4,000 people into work, provided 2,000 apprenticeships and led to town centre regeneration projects like the Red House.

Mark Reckless AM (UKIP, South Wales East)rejected any suggestion the EU was responsible for workers rights; they were down to figures like Neville Chamberlain and Barbara Castle . At the same time AMs were debating the referendum, the First Minister was standing alongside the Prime Minister, “uniting against people governing themselves and for unlimited immigration”.

They want to Remain whatever the cost to other people’s jobs as they want to protect their own (jobs), recounting a meeting with George Osborne at Oxford University where Osborne said he had more in common with European aristocracy than the British working class. Mark was sure the working class would revolt, because we’re better off out and are “more than a star on someone else’s flag”.

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) found herself citing George Osborne too, who said if you don’t have to rely on public services you can afford to look back to a bygone era . The Aberfan disaster is cited in EU directives about industrial waste, while bathing water directives have resulted in clean beaches. It was no surprise Leave was being backed by, “tax-evaders, industrial polluters and irresponsible….employers”.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) cited the single market as a British achievement that offers opportunities to Wales. There was no way things would stay the same with a Leave vote; markets have routinely said there would be damage, while access to the single market wouldn’t be as profitable. London could also lose its place as a premier global city, having a knock-on impact on growing regional centres in the UK like Cardiff.

David asked what might’ve happened in eastern Europe if it became a collection of failed states outside the EU? We live in a more secure world as a result of the EU and to “face your challenges without your neighbours….is a flat contradiction”, one he hoped the electorate will see through.

EU membership “pivotal to Welsh prospertity”

David Rowlands AM (UKIP, South Wales East) said there was “no such thing as European money”, it was British money coming back to us. Brussels only considers Wales a region with no national status, but the existence of the Assembly is a sign of nationhood within the UK. “Only a fool” would exchange being a nation within the UK with being a region of a European superstate. He said Labour had sold out to “big business, bankers and the political elite”.

Hefin David AM’s (Lab, Caerphilly) first and foremost concern was the wellbeing of Caerphilly. Small businesses have told him up to 30% of their trade is done with Germany, France and the Benelux countries, while many had used EU-backed schemes to fund training and employment. He accepted there was an anti-EU feeling in Caerphilly, as constituents feel the EU is distant from their day-to-day experiences and there was a need to engage with concerns on immigration – however, leaving wouldn’t provide the French with an incentive to protect the sea border.

Replying on behalf of the Welsh Government, Finance and Local Government Secretary Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said the Welsh Government’s official position was that continued EU membership is pivotal to the future prosperity of Wales .

The fact two languages are in daily use makes Wales part of the European mainstream and comfortable with multiple identities. Europe should be based on solidarity and protected rights, while the EU is fundamental to Welsh agriculture, industry and university research.

Direct EU funding to Wales is worth £500million a year, while more than 500 companies from other EU member states have operations in Wales employing 57,000 people. A Leave vote could cause problems with international investment and the consequences would start “the day after”a Leave vote.

The political case for the EU was the most powerful, as everyone in the chamber was fortunate to live during 70 years of peace, when the last 1,000 years of European history had been dominated by conflict. Those differences were solved by politics, not by force and there needs to be something better than pursuing an “embittered turning away from the world”; Wales “is better in Europe, Wales belongs in Europe”.

Summing up, Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM praised the rational and reasonable tone of the debate. He underlined many of the things others said about regeneration and structural funds, though he failed to understand the argument that withdrawing from the EU would “give us more power”; we live in a globalised world possessing interdependent economic regions.

Dafydd doesn’t consider people moving from the EU immigration either, more citizens sharing work opportunities in both directions. David Rowlands AM intervened, saying it was “disgraceful”that socialist parties support immigration that’s forcing down wages and taking working class jobs.

Dafydd’s decision to vote against remaining in the Common Market in 1975 is one he’s“regretted ever since”. Dafydd believed the most important argument was one on multiple identities, citing the Welsh language’s co-official status in the EU, whilst not being official at “our”UK Parliament.

The motion was approved by 44 votes to 9.

The Senedd say Remain; will Wales?

The wording of the motion is worth considering carefully. There’s no mention of the UK despite it being a UK referendum and the result being carried by the UK as a whole. It just mentions Wales remaining an EU member.

This is probably the first attempt since devolution of AMs (indirectly) marking out a separate foreign policy for Wales. I wouldn’t expect the likes of Eluned Morgan and David Melding to cross over to join me on the dark side anytime soon, but it’s an interesting development nonetheless.

The debate itself was non-binding and unlikely to have an impact on voting intentions to be honest; we didn’t really hear anything that hasn’t already been said. What I will say is that AMs deserve commendation for having perhaps the most level-headed and reasonable debate so far, in a campaign that’s been reduced to Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage reenacting the Battle of Trafalgar on the Thames with fishing trawlers and water taxis.

The only weak contributions were from David Rowlands due to the dodgy logic applied, but even then I’ve seen and heard worse in the Assembly down the years so that can be easily forgiven.

The signs are the result in Wales could go either way so it’s still all to play for here. At a UK level though, it’s fair to say the Remain campaign are in trouble and need to pull a rabbit out of their hat in this last week of the campaign.