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EU Referendum: What's Best for Wales?

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There are times when history seems to speed up. We are living through just such a period. By the end of the decade Wales may be outside not just the British Union of 1707, if Scotland votes Yes, but also outside the European Union of 1973, if England votes no. The prospect of being a semi-autonomous province of a rump successor State is hardly one to generate enthusiasm. But the new prospect created by David Cameron's announcement this week of a parochial Anglo-centric future - for Wales, see Little England - should fill us all in Wales, Unionist and Nationalist alike, with horror.

There is obviously an irony, as our Scottish cousins have pointed out, in a prime minister who lambasted the First Minister of Scotland for the economic uncertainty created by delaying a Scottish in/out referendum for two years now delaying a British in/out plebiscite by five. The refusal to place a reformed British Union on the ballot paper is in marked contrast to Cameron's insistence on what amounts, in European terms, to a British version of devo-max also speaks volumes. Angela Merkel it seems is much more sensitive to the views of British voters than Cameron is to the Scots.

'Better Together' and 'Better Off Out' are obviously uneasy bedfellows as slogans go, but this reveals a hidden contradiction that is driving the tectonic shifts in politics in these islands. When the question of EU membership is posed in terms of the "national interest" it becomes blindingly obvious - we are not one nation, we are four. If the political class in England, egged on by the red-tops, wants to embrace some fading Atlanticist future, then as a democrat, despite my deep misgivings, I am forced to say good luck. But Wales - where 8% of businesses are still in agriculture, where manufacturing remains a potent force, and where we are net beneficiaries to the extent of £150 per family each year, not net contributors to the EU - things look markedly different.

The immediate effects of an EU exit for us could be the mass exodus of jobs, from car manufacturers, for example, like Ford and Toyota and the trans-European aerospace giant Airbus. The dismantling of the admittedly imperfect Common Agricultural Policy - seen universally as a sop to the French farming lobby - will be felt the keenest by Welsh upland farmers. The loss of European Structural Funds would be a particularly bitter blow having been the only game in town for the regeneration of our former industrial heartland since Thatcher destroyed the last vestiges of British regional policy. European social provisions give Welsh working people some security which could totally disappear under right wing governments at Westminster. Recent UK governments have allowed Welsh average income levels to drop to the bottom of the UK league table. Losing European safeguards will only make things worse, particularly with an England increasingly centred on the global city-state of London.

In renegotiating the relationship of the UK as a multi-national state with the European Union each of the constituent countries has different, and sometimes conflicting, national interests. The logical consequence of this is clear: each country needs to play its full part in this process and there should be Welsh Government representatives in the UK negotiating team on an equal basis. The 'Balance of Competencies' review externally - between the EU and the UK - needs to be run in parallel with an identical 'Balance of Competencies' review between Westminster and the devolved parliaments. If powers are to be repatriated, there should be specific attention as to which parliament takes up those repatriated powers, and not the automatic default that everything goes to Westminster. For example on social measures Wales should be should allowed to 'opt-in' even if England chooses not to do so.

The same principle applies to the referendum itself. The referendum results should be published respectively for England, Wales, northern Ireland and for Scotland if it's still part of the UK. Unlike Wales, Scotland does of course have the choice to avoid being dragged to the exit door of the EU if it decides to vote Yes to independence in their referendum next year. Publishing the EU referendum results respectively for each nation will encourage the UK negotiating team to take full note of the needs and wishes of the smaller nations during the negotiating process. An English vote for exit should not - by dint of sheer numbers - be able to trump a desire in Wales to stay in.

For the UK to leave the EU - which we don't wish to see - it should only be on the basis of consensus between the nations of these islands. The right-wing press, of course, may ask why a nation of 3million should dictate the future for a population 20 times the size. Yet Euro-sceptic journalists were quick to praise 'plucky' Ireland only a few years ago in stalling the Lisbon Treaty for a continent of 300million. In Europe and Britain, if we are to accept the line from London that the UK is a political union of equals then the UK has to accept that it can only move so far and so fast as is agreed by all of its members. Isn't that the very essence of subsidiarity?

The arguments for staying part of the EU - certainly with steps to make it more efficient and more responsive to the diverse needs of European regions - are more clear-cut here in Wales than as seen in England. On balance we in Wales would probably prefer to stay put.

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