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16 January 2014

Wales: shaping our relationship with the UK and EU

Wales: shaping our relationship with the UK and EU

The vibrant, yet sometimes overlooked, nation of Wales is entering a key time over the next few years, with the upcoming Scottish referendum on independence this year, and a looming UK referendum on EU membership. Wales is challenged to determine how it should shape its relationship with both its unions - the UK and the EU.

If the UK were to leave the EU, Wales too would no longer enjoy its membership with the EU. Potential Scottish independence has raised the possibility of Scotland pursuing an independent membership within the EU. This bold example should alarm the nation of Wales to urgently question the direction it aims to take into the future. Wales hosts a strong link with the EU, and although this has been slightly dampened by the economic crisis and with divergent opinions in Wales on EU membership, First Minister Carwyn Jones has voiced the established reality that Wales benefits directly from the EU. The Common Agricultural Policy funds 80 percent of Welsh farms, structural funds deliver £2bn of investment into poorer regions, and the Single European Market secures precious jobs and businesses. Labour MP Peter Hain shared how Wales would have missed out on £3.7bn of investment if the UK was not a member of the EU.

In the light of Wales' under-performing economy, the funds are essential. A recent report by the British Academy and the Learned Society of Wales highlighted that Wales would find it harder to prosper in a 'little Britain', where funding would be much less than that provided by the EU.

Hence the call, raised by Peter Hain MP, for the people of Wales to be consulted on EU membership whilst MPs continue to debate the referendum. It is all too easy for this smaller nation to miss out on strategic discussions and to have its unique character and needs overlooked. Wales requires deeper incorporation into the debate, and encouragement so it might proclaim and defend its varied interests.

Since 1999 Wales has been increasing in its confidence and governance, proving itself to be active and competent in defining its own future since devolution began. In some areas the nation is seen as a leading light within the UK, for example with the establishment of an Anti-Human Trafficking Coordinator. Wales has very different characteristics than the UK as a whole while Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all much more comfortable with multi-level governance, including with the EU, than England might be.

It is thus crucial for Wales to increase its confidence and responsibility for its future. The aforementioned report mentions the need for better communication within Wales and with the UK. A poll regarding EU membership last year demonstrated that the place which in fact receives the most EU aid, the Valleys, is actually the place where public opinion is strongest to leave the EU. In the face of this, now is the time for Welsh Government to spread awareness and encourage discussions amongst its own people. Plaid Cymru is a supporter of EU membership, but points out that the EU still has changes to undergo, and Wales has a key role to play in restructuring European politics.

These discussions are vital. The upcoming European Parliament elections this May are likely to be an opportunity for such debate and for sharing public opinion on the EU topic. Perhaps Wales can facilitate increased communication and further national union, to encourage a more informed and politically active nation, for the sake of its unique characteristics and future direction.

Emeline Makin, public affairs and advocacy policy assistant, Evangelical Alliance Wales.