Europe has largely been absent from the Senedd election debate. This isn’t surprising, given the urgency of pandemic recovery and the dominance of constitutional questions. The B-word (Brexit) has been replaced by the C-word (Covid) and the D-word (Devolution).
However, the question of our relationship with Europe and the EU will inform the economy and culture of Wales for years to come. It will affect our opportunities, as well as our ability to respond to challenges such as the climate emergency. Whilst this may make anyone suffering from Brexit fatigue want to crawl back under the duvet, it’s a hard fact that we’d all be foolish to ignore.
We should pay attention, then, to what the manifestos say about Europe.
Reform, UKIP, Abolish and Propel are very quiet. The Conservatives primarily follow the Westminster line.
But the parties who have typically taken a more positive line when it comes to working with Europe make some important commitments – commitments which are likely to underpin the approach taken by our next Senedd.
Wales for Europe has analysed the manifestos based on our nine asks for the next Senedd, covering areas ranging from EU replacement funding, safeguarding standards, Erasmus+, cultural opportunities and EU citizens’ rights. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Wales Green Party all insist that EU replacement funding should be controlled by Wales. Labour and the Liberal Democrats also emphasise that we should receive ‘not a penny less’ after Brexit, as promised. Plaid are surprisingly quiet on this specific point, though Liz Saville- Roberts MP has been vocal in Westminster.
Labour, Plaid and the Greens make clear commitments when it comes to farming, agricultural and environmental standards. The Liberal Democrats make the link between changing standards and Brexit, and.will ensure that animal welfare standards are ‘at least as good if not better than those we enjoyed as members of the European Union’.
Non-tariff barriers and regulatory alignment may not be the most exciting of conversation topics. However, they are the cause of the problems that so many businesses now face, and of reduced income, increased costs for consumers and job losses.
Labour will ‘argue for closer economic and research ties with the EU’. Plaid will ‘make the case for […] closer regulatory alignment with the EU’. Gwlad call for ‘tariff free access in both directions with Europe’. It’s the Liberal Democrats, though, who make the commitment to rejoining the Single Market and Customs Union, the most obvious solution to solving the problems businesses now face.
When Kirsty Williams and Mark Drakeford announced Wales’ own ‘replacement’ for Erasmus+ in March, many in Scotland and England looked on in envy. It’s good news, then, that Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid and the Greens are all committed to Erasmus+ and/ or the New International Learning Opportunities programme. The Conservatives focus on ‘maximising opportunities’ from the Turing programme, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, though Turing’s ability to support disadvantaged young people has been questioned.
The end of Freedom and Movement poses serious risk for artists and performers, though Covid restrictions mean that we are yet to see the full impact (as with so much of the Brexit deal). Plaid, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all commit to addressing visa issues, with the Greens noting that they disproportionately affect artists at the start of their careers. Labour don’t address this point in their manifesto, though MPs like Kevin Brennan have spoken out in Parliament.
What about the longer-term vision? The current deal will be open to renegotiation in 2025. This is an opportunity to build a more collaborative and pragmatic relationship with the EU. However, it’s also an opportunity to create more barriers. It’s therefore a milestone which all parties will need to face head-on, though parties are generally vague on specifics at the moment.
Labour reassert their approach based on soft power and diplomacy, and the new European Envoy for Wales ‘will be tasked with ensuring the strongest possible voice for Wales in the EU’.
The Greens ‘will continue to work to strengthen our bonds with our European neighbours and allies at every level, promoting future positive opportunities and tackling the damage caused to Wales by Brexit’.
Plaid’s ‘longer-term aspiration is for an independent Wales to join the European Union’. In the meantime ‘a Plaid Cymru Government will pursue every avenue to deepen our relationship with the EU’.
The Liberal Democrats give the most focused short-term aspiration with their commitment to rejoining the Single Market and Customs Union ‘as part of the scheduled renegotiation with the EU in 2025, or earlier should the opportunity arise’. Disappointingly, none of the manifestos commit to supporting EU citizens living in Wales. The Settled Status application deadline is fast approaching (30 th June). There are concerns that vulnerable citizens in particular are at risk, including the elderly and children in care. There are fears of future corrosion of citizens’ rights and talk of a possible ‘second Windrush’. The next Senedd must do everything in its power to protect all those who have made Wales their home.
In spite of this omission, there is much that is promising in many of the manifestos for those who are keen to build a collaborative and constructive relationship between Wales and the EU in the next Senedd. The bigger challenge may be making sure these issues get the attention they merit in public debate.
The deal may be ‘done’, but the hard work is only just beginning.