Much of the debate about the future of the United Kingdom in recent months has focused on the SNP’s plan for a referendum on Scottish independence.
But quietly, and with growing concern, fears are being raised about Wales’ own place in the Union.
Wales’ First Minister Carwyn Jones has made a lot of noise lately about ‘the national interest’. By that he means the Welsh national interest, for the avoidance of doubt.
Following the recent EU summit he spoke of establishing direct negotiations between the Welsh Government, EU leaders and European Commissioners. He even wants to open an expensive new office in London to speak directly to foreign embassies and investors, bypassing the Foreign Office, the Wales Office and UKTI – at a time of spending cuts across government and when £1mn worth of Welsh Government office space lies empty.
Some have questioned why the First Minister is so keen to pursue his own foreign policy when he’s failed to deliver on his domestic policy. Just two Bills have been published since the Assembly acquired new powers in the March referendum. There’s been foot-dragging over incentives to grow the economy such as enterprise zones. And there’s the perennial dismal list of statistics on everything from health outcomes to exam performance across the areas where the Labour administration in Wales has actually got total responsibility.
Earlier in the Autumn the First Minister argued that the Welsh Government should get wider powers if Scotland votes for independence. In that event he suggested Wales' relationship to the rest of the UK would need a "radical reconsideration".
The Welsh Government is, of course, happy to take the Treasury’s money. It gets £15bn a year, with many millions more in additional expenditure as a result of the Budget and Autumn Statement. They’re just as quick to complain that it’s not enough. Some in Welsh Labour even argue that the UK Government commission looking at fiscal devolution and accountability in Wales is “a curiously disturbing motive”.
Such an attitude raises the questions: has Labour in Wales ditched its Unionist credentials in favour of a more isolationist agenda? If so, where does that leave Wales?
When Carwyn Jones talks of a new Euro-Welsh relationship he is effectively arguing for independence – a case no doubt welcomed by the Nationalists, but far from in the Welsh national interest.
He argues that the Prime Minister’s EU veto sidelines Wales in Europe – while pushing for his own right of audience in Europe. It’s an isolationist approach which will achieve precisely that – sidelining of Wales as well as weakening the voting strength that Wales naturally has as part of the United Kingdom.
The fact is what Wales needs is not independence or isolation. It needs the inter-dependence of the four nations to provide strength and security during difficult times. And it needs Governments in London and Cardiff working together to create the right conditions for economic growth, investment and jobs.
Wales is not a member of the European Union; the United Kingdom is. The Welsh Government does not have a seat at the Council of Ministers; the UK Government does. And unless the First Minister is arguing Wales should have both, his administration should try harder to work with the UK Government and its ministers, instead of being increasingly antagonistic towards both.
The Prime Minister was clear all along that he would protect the United Kingdom’s national interest during the recent EU summit. What is not clear is what Carwyn Jones means when he talks about the national interest.
It’s certainly not in the interests of Welsh farmers to adopt a more isolationist stance at a time when the future form of the Common Agricultural Policy is under discussion.
It’s not in the interests of communities like the South Wales Valleys – among the poorest in the EU – when the next round of structural funds are being considered.
Major infrastructure projects directly benefiting Wales, such as superfast broadband and electrification of the Great Western Main Line from London to Cardiff could also not be delivered via a Wales-only approach.
The United Kingdom remains a committed member of the European Union and will continue to work to ensure that a strong and constructive British voice is heard – a fact which will benefit Wales too. Our focus needs to be working together to ensure the single market works with greater deregulation, particularly for small businesses.
Louis Gallois, chief executive of EADS, the parent company of Airbus which employs 6,000 people in North Wales, said the partnership between Britain, France and Germany in building aircraft "is a good example of what Europe can do at its best". The company was a "good symbol of Europe… a successful Europe with the UK", he said.
It is only by keeping our economies open, expanding our trade and making EU laws more business-friendly that we can get the economic growth in Europe that we all want to see. For Wales to reap the benefits you don’t achieve this by seeking isolation, a drawing down of a ‘slate curtain’ along the border with England.