Thank you for inviting me here today to speak at this event on the future of Europe and particular thanks to my former colleague and close friend Nuala Ahern. I understand that this is one event in a series of discussions about the developments in the European Union. And these discussions are happening at a very interesting time where we are seeing dramatic changes and new ideas being discussed daily. The crisis is economic, social, environmental and democratic. It has created a different atmosphere and a new self-examining in the EU. Some see it as a reason for further EU integration and some believe it could mean the end of the union, with Greece maybe ready to leave. There are incessant talks of a referendum on membership in the UK, with the tabloid press in London getting more and more hysterical. In parallel to this, there is change within some EU Member States as support increases for nations demanding self-government. Constitutional change at sub state level is now on the agenda.
As a Member of the European Parliament for Wales and President of Plaid Cymru, I want to see my country as an independent member of the European Union, just like Ireland, with an equal and normal status. At the moment, Wales does not have a voice when decisions are made at the top levels of EU governance. Without a Commissioner or a representative at Council of Ministers meetings, we have to rely on being represented by a London-centric government which does not take decisions based on the needs of the Welsh people or with any regard to the effects on Wales. Our economy is weak because of marginalisation by successive UK governments. As a result of that we get top levels of EU funding from which Wales benefits enormously. Unlike the UK, Wales is a net beneficiary of EU membership.
If we were an independent Member State, Welsh would be an official language of the EU, just like Irish Gaelic. I campaigned for official status for the language. We were successful in achieving this in 2008 and Welsh has now been spoken in the Council of Ministers and the Committee of the Regions. Progress such as this cannot be under-estimated in connecting people to the institutions. Nothing can replace the effectiveness of speaking to people in their own languages.
Plaid Cymru is a member of the European Free Alliance, a political party which advocates more autonomy and independence for the nations and regions of Europe. We believe this would help build a more effective EU. Europe can seem like another layer of governance that is too far away for people to have any influence on. But if people can play a full part in the European Union through their nations, then they will feel more involved in the project.
Plaid Cymru, like EFA, is a pro-European party and we see a future independent Wales as an EU member state. But we and the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament are critical of many aspects of the Union and that is why a debate is needed about its future. We supported a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but would have campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote. We may see a referendum in the UK if some members of the Conservative and Labour parties get their way. We are discussing the possible scenarios and outcomes – it cannot be a simple in or out referendum. Every aspect of our EU membership has to be looked at.
There is no other region in the world in which half a billion people can move freely between states to work and live. This week I visited Cardiff Metropolitan University to discuss their latest Erasmus Mundus project. Erasmus is the EU’s programme which allows young people to work and study abroad.
Putting aside the trading benefits of the internal market, the EU is a platform to work together as a continent to fight climate change, protect social rights and advance gender equality. Solidarity is important. EU programmes also provide millions of Euros worth of funds to rural areas as well as our poorer areas. To ensure that these funds are maintained, I have voted in favour of increasing the EU budget over the next seven year financial framework. You will be aware of the recent vote in the House of Commons on the budget, where the Labour party decided to join with Tory rebels to vote in favour of a reduced budget. I am concerned as to where this will lead. We have seen some preliminary figures this week about the President of the Council’s proposal for the budget for the next financial framework – he wants a €75 billion cut. This is not just a budget issue but a strategic decision on how to overcome the economic crisis.
The referendum in Scotland towards an independent nation will obviously have a significant impact on us in Wales and the rest of Europe as well. Whatever happens, the referendum in 2014 will inevitably reshape the future constitutional relationships between the nations of the United Kingdom and with Ireland. The constitutional status quo is no longer an option. The Edinburgh Agreement “paves the way to a new partnership between the nations of these islands”, as the First Minister Alex Salmond said. For us in Wales, we need to be able to plan our own future, particularly following Scottish independence. We are not and don’t want to become and English region. We want more powers for our Assembly and so we have to think ahead. There are also exciting developments in Flanders, Catalonia and the Basque Country. It was incredible to see a million and a half people marching in favour of independence in Barcelona in September. An early election has now been called, which is centred on the constitutional relationship between Catalonia and Madrid. Each situation is unique but there is a common thread: democracy and equality.
This is not the federation of nation states, which the President of the European Commission referred to in his State of the Nation address recently. How can the debate focus on making the EU more relevant while at the same time there is talk about the possibility of expelling a whole nation of people who are enthusiastic Europeans? That is not solidarity.
There is much talk in Brussels of the consequences of independence for nations in current Member States. The truth is that we have no precedent for this situation and the Commission have not given us a definitive answer. But I can’t believe that the EU would even consider denying European citizens membership. Could we possibly see a UK out, Scotland in scenario?
Our response to the economic crisis has been to alienate the people of Europe further. The European Parliament, elected by the people, has been completely bypassed in the important decisions. It seems that a few national leaders are driving the agenda and people don’t want to see this. This has affected the EU’s legitimacy, as it is seen as part of the problem, by imposing harsh austerity on member states trying to recover from recession. This means the democratically elected European Parliament must play a much bigger role in decision making. EU citizens must also play a full role in treaty changes. And further integration should be the way to resolve the problem.
There is already a disparity between how the eurozone and non-eurozone countries feel about EU membership. A European Parliament survey published this week showed a 10% difference in support levels for membership of the EU. The same difference existed when the question was “how much do you think the voice of your country counts in the EU?”
This is a crucial moment in the history of the EU. We are in a many faceted crisis. President Barroso has called for the debate on reform to be held between now and the European elections in 2014. We need that to be an honest and open debate in which there is a real voice for our citizens. I had the pleasure this week of meeting Catalan President Artur Mas in Brussels. He said: “..This new, much more federal European reality must be built on the basis of those nations which, having a clearly defined territory, history, language and culture, as is the case with Catalonia, have the will, as expressed democratically at the ballot box, to be their own player in the construction of this new Europe.”
The people of Catalonia can decide on their future but that future is set clearly within the European Union. He said that Catalonia was a European nation and expects Europe not to let it down. That is true for all of us – Europe can’t let us down now and that means we can’t let Europe down. It is up to us to build a better Europe.