Wales is a great nation – a nation where community is important, where there is a strong public service ethos, and a real commitment to looking after the most vulnerable people in our society. Wales is a nation with a heritage, culture, and language respected across the world. A nation that has grown and is growing in confidence since devolution and one that has always been outward-looking. A nation that has provided intellect and entrepreneurship that has driven global economic prosperity. Wales is home.
Yet it seems we are currently mired in despond. Every news bulletin, every paper, many casual conversations include the phrase Brexit, usually accompanied by a sense that already the process is proving too difficult and costly. It would be easy to sit back and let it run its course.
But we know that people have strong feelings about the European Union and about issues associated with the debate. These range widely from trade to immigration, to legal sovereignty, to the economy generally, to science and innovation, to reciprocal healthcare arrangements and to workers’ rights. Every so often the discussion is about the shape of bananas. Aside from fruit, it’s probably fair to say that the complexity and detail involved in withdrawing from the EU elude most of us. Hence the temptation to ‘turn off’ and ‘zone out.
None of us can afford to do that. Whether we voted Leave or Remain on 23rd June, we all presumably had the best of intentions. Nobody voted for a poorer Wales, or a less skilled workforce, or fewer opportunities for our young people. We voted for whichever path we believe offered us all, individually and collectively, a better future. In Wales and for the UK as a whole the referendum result was that we should leave the European Union. The 48 percent who voted to remain – as I did – might not like the result and still believe it is a profound mistake for our country, but at present, it is the most likely outcome, as we head for the triggering of Article 50, the formal notification that Britain intends to leave the EU.
And this is where we, the people of Wales, have a great opportunity to foster our deep existing links with the rest of Europe right across economic, social, political and cultural spheres, and where Wales for Europe comes into its own. Wales for Europe is a new campaigning organisation to support the closest possible continuing relationship with the EU.
As its first Director, a key part of my role is to help create a coalition of support in the interests of our economy, our people, and our environment, not forgetting our need for peace and stability in a dangerous and ever-changing world. But we can’t afford just to preach to those already convinced of the benefits of Europe. A vital component of how any change in Wales’ relationship with Europe plays out – and with what degree of success for us in Wales – will be a concerted effort to involve and talk to those who voted to leave, to understand why so many of our communities felt disillusioned.
Helen Birtwhistle is the Director of Wales For Europe