I was recently asked to contribute to a current affairs programme on the BBC Wales (The Wales Report) looking at:
- 1/ under employment in South Wales and
- 2/ the ramifications of the UK leaving the European Union (EU).
I was more than happy to contribute particularly in relation to the continued membership of the EU by the UK as it never ceases to amaze me as I go about my daily life the amount of people that I come across who are just generally antagonistic to the EU and the European project in general. Particularly for residents of the South Wales Valleys I really don’t understand it!!! When people say “Well what has the EU ever done for us?” I just say look around you. How often do you see building projects or other initiatives badged with that little blue flag with yellow stars? Are people blind?
Considering we are one of the poorer areas of Europe our towns and cities and our roads are in remarkably good condition and a significant element of that is related to EU funding. I really don’t want to get into the minutiae but initiatives such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)and the European Social Fund (ESF) have ploughed billions of money into the Welsh economy for over ten years. Now I don’t want to make out that everything is rosy in the European funding garden, far from it. Considering the length of time that particularly The Valleys and West Wales have been eligible for the highest level of Objective One/ Convergence funding it could be argued that not as much has been achieved as might have been. Broadly I would agree with that argument, however I also believe there are a number of different factors that have conspired to make that the case. It is too simplistic and easy to blame bad management of the programme and projects, as some have. True, there has probably been an element of this but I believe that the issues are far deeper and more complex.
Over the years I have been involved in, in one way or another with a number of European funded projects and it has always struck me one; how difficult it is to get the money in the first place and two the amount of bureaucracy involved in running such initiatives that comes via the European bureaucracy such as the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO). This beaucracy in particular is incredibly risk averse and because of this it stifles any innovation or flexibility in project delivary. This might be all very well and good if we are talking about building a road but is not conducive to a successful outcome if an initiative is trying to identify and implement strategies to assist people in accessing employment. The whole system seems weighted against any form of innovation or change of project delivery. All the bureaucracy seems interested in is ensuring targets are met even if things change and they are the wrong targets.
One can point to the easy targets such as the £6.1M of EU money that went to the likes of AWEMA
or my own personal bugbear the anachronistic Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but the reality of the situation is unsurprisingly that things are a lot more complicated than that. If the UK were to leave the EU and Wales lose European funding I am convinced it would make a palpable impact on the people of Wales. It has been estimated that 200,000 Welsh jobs are directly or indirectly linked to membership of the EU. In a nation of a little over 3 million that is an awful lot of jobs. More fundamentally EU funding has been used to improve and support some of those very basic things in life that we often just take for granted and don’t notice but make all the difference to our quality of life. At its most basic Europe has experienced a fantastically long period of peace. Historically the continent has been blighted by wars precipitated by one “nation” or group conspiring to ensure that their interests or beliefs are adhered to rather than the wider interests of the people of the continent . I know that it may be a little far fetched to argue that this period of European peace is simply down to the EU but it must be said that these days disagreements are resolved via debate in places like Brussels rather than in train carriages in woods following years of bloody battles.
Peace is something that many of us take for granted as it is something that we have known all our lives, in a relatively short period of time it seems many have come to take for granted something that our parent, grandparents and great grandparents yearned for. On top of that those little things that we can enjoy during peace time such as meeting friends and having a coffee in a smart town centre, having a picnic in a pleasant park or taking our children or grand children for a swim in a municipal pool. It is these little things that make all the difference to our lived lives and to those of us who live in Wales just open your eyes and have a look around you and notice how often projects and initiatives tht are improving these basic pleasures have a little blue flag with yellow stars.
For a good Blog post on Wales and the EU have a look at: http://bit.ly/11OUXja