by Nick Davies
As is widely acknowledged, criticisms of Cameron’s negotiating skills at the Brussels summit in December rather missed the point. His priorities were to protect the interests of the City of London and the unity of the Tory party. He knew exactly what he was doing.
Brazenly dishonest, of course, was his claim to be acting in the ‘national interest’, when the interests of most of England, let alone the other nations of the UK, were notably absent from his concerns.
For Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, whatever Cameron’s priority, disengagement from the EU is not in the national interest of Wales: ‘I am seriously concerned about whether the interests of Wales can be advanced effectively by the UK government’.
In one sense, none of this is new. Wales has always been, at best, peripheral to the neo-liberal project. The last thirty years have put into sharp relief the divergence between the interests of the South East of England-based financial sector, and everything, and everywhere else. The Tory party identification of itself with the ‘national interest’ is as old as the party itself and Euro-sceptic Tories from the south of England tend not to lose much sleep over the problems faced by Wales. By the same token, the EU has generally been more popular in Wales than in England, not least because of the strategic role played by European structural funding in compensating for the malign neglect of the Thatcher-Major years.
What has given this situation a new dynamic is the depth of the UK’s economic crisis, the total failure of Cameron and Osborne’s economic policies to alleviate it, the crisis in the Euro-zone and, last but not least, the continuing devolution process which sees an increasingly self-confident Welsh government refusing to be seen by the rest of Europe as merely a ‘region’ of the UK.
With some of the poorest communities in Western Europe and with over 26% of its working people employed in the public sector,Wales has already had to pay dearly and disproportionately for the greed of those 150 miles up the M4. Wales has lost 13,000 public sector jobs in the fifteen months since the coalition took office and the fear is that Wales’ manufacturing sector will lose out as a result of the UK’s semi-detachment from the EU, the destination of about half of Wales’ exports. The collapse of the Euro zone into low, or no-growth austerity (and the consequent increase in the value of sterling as against the euro) will make a bad situation much worse, threatening the 54,000 private sector jobs with EU based companies in Wales.
The Welsh government’s response to the Cameron ‘veto’ has been a declared intention to seek stronger ties with the EU and, for the first time, Welsh government ministers are attending meetings of the EU’s General Affairs Council.
However, the EU in its present form is no safe haven for Wales. The ‘fiscal compact’ that Cameron refused to sign up to, albeit for his own reasons, modifies the Lisbon treaty with a requirement that Euro-zone states’ budgets be balanced or in surplus and that this provision be incorporated into the various states’ legal systems. Thus deficit budgeting, the traditional Keynesian response to a recession, is virtually outlawed. Conversely, the austerity that is already taking the Euro zone into a downward-spiral is set in stone, threatening jobs, public services and, if the bankers’ take-overs in Italy and Greece are any indication, democracy itself.
Since the 1970s many in the Welsh labour movement have abandoned the traditional hostility to the EU as a ‘bosses market’ and, notwithstanding its inherently free market nature, seen in ‘social Europe’, if not a more enlightened alternative to the jungle of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, at least a place of safety from it. However bad the government might be in Westminster, European money would develop the economy of much of Wales, and the social chapter would act as a safeguard against super-exploitation.
After the Brussels summit that option seems no longer credible. More austerity is the last thing that Wales needs. However, a ‘left’ anti-EU stance, simply reverting to the ‘Get Britain Out’ position of the 1970s, risks getting caught in the slipstream of the raucous, well-funded and totally reactionary Euro-scepticism of UKIP, the Tory right and the Daily Express, which sees the ‘repatriation’ of powers as a means of racking up the level of exploitation in the workplace.
Welsh Labour, instead of simply seeking refuge in the EU must, along with other socialist, green and progressive nationalist movements across Europe, act as an agent of radical change and aim to transform the European Union so that it operates no longer for the benefit of the bankers, speculators and profiteers but is instead based on social justice, equality, democracy, international solidarity and the protection of our environment.
Nick Davies, writing personally, is Chair of Welsh Labour Grassroots and is a local council candidate for Labour in Swansea.
This article also appears in the February issue of Labour Briefing