Brexit has forced Wales to re-imagine its European future.
Wales’ European presence and profile have been shaped by its distinctive relationship with the European Union (EU). This will continue to be the case whatever version of Brexit wins the day. To date, though, the Welsh Government has stood by its preferred vision, which includes continued membership in the Customs Union, participation in the Single Market, and participation in key EU programmes: Erasmus+, Creative Europe and Horizon Europe.
Whether or not these Welsh preferences see the light of day depends on the final agreement reached between the UK and the EU. The reconfiguration of the UK-EU relationship will see Wales become a de facto Region of a non-EU Member State, with very restricted opportunities for access and influence in Europe. If it wants to influence forthcoming programmes, and gain access to funding, partnership and investment opportunities, Wales will require deeper and stronger alliances within Europe.
Spearheaded by a new Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, the process of preparing Wales’ post-Brexit agenda in Europe is underway. But many challenges have to be met first, not least the challenge of institutional capacity.
How might Wales’ profile change in Europe post-Brexit?
Currently, the Welsh profile in the EU revolves around three strands of activity: an outpost in Brussels; participation in European networks; and bi-lateral partnerships. Each of these strands needs to be refreshed if the Welsh presence is to be more than symbolic in the post-Brexit era.
- Wales’ representation in Brussels
At the heart of the European district in Brussels is Wales House: Wales’ outpost in Brussels. It is home to the Welsh Government, Wales Higher Education Brussels, the National Assembly for Wales and, until March 2018, the Welsh Local Government Association. These representations vary in size but, broadly speaking, Wales House is the base from which Welsh actors engage in intelligence gathering, profile raising and policy influencing activity. For the Welsh Government it is also the launchpad for intra-UK inter-governmental working in Brussels.
If it happens, Brexit will not reduce the significance of Wales House. On the contrary, Wales will have to work harder in a post-Brexit context, to forge and maintain stronger formal and informal alliances, in order to capitalise on the partnership and funding opportunities provided by Europe on the one hand and, on the other, to influence projects, programmes and policies which continue to take effect in Wales.
The current model of Welsh representation is not fit for purpose post-Brexit. During this current period of strategy development, we need to return to the partnership working model in Brussels. This was the model used when Wales first had representation in Brussels, through the Wales European Centre (WEC). Established in 1992, the WEC embodied a more co-operative, partnership approach to promoting Wales and Welsh interests in Europe. Its activity supported and was supported by a number of sponsoring organisations, including the Welsh Development Agency and Welsh Local Government as leading sponsors and, beyond this, Training and Enterprise Councils, Welsh Universities and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, to name but a few.
As devolution unfolded, the shape of the office shifted away from this partnership approach. Now is the ideal time to rehabilitate the partnership model so that WEC 2.0 can represent a wider array of stakeholders in Wales.
- European networks
A key pillar of Wales’ European activity is participation in European networks, many of which stretch beyond the institutions, politics and borders of the EU. Some are extensive in reach and focus, such as the Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions (CPMR), which even embraces North Africa and works across a range of policy areas.
Others, however, are smaller and more focused, such as the Vanguard Initiative for innovation and smart specialisation in industry, which Wales has recently joined; and the Four Motors for Europe, which aims to promote the knowledge economy at the regional level, in which Wales is an Associate Member.
It is not only the Welsh Government that participates in European networks. For example, the National Assembly for Wales participates in the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies (CALRE), the WLGA is a member of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) and Cardiff is a member of EUROCITIES. Then there are the countless Welsh civil society organisations networked into Europe.
All these networks will gain heightened significance in a post-Brexit world.
Among other things they will serve as gateways into Europe, enabling Welsh players to access and exchange information, to seek policy influence, to build and maintain strategic partnerships and to secure investment. Decisions to invest (and perhaps disinvest) in these European networks must be carefully aligned with domestic priorities. Furthermore, the Welsh Government needs to support civil society organisations to engage with these European networks.
- Bi-lateral relationships
To complement its networking activity, Wales is also forging a series of bi-lateral alliances with regions with which it feels a sense of strong common identity and mutual interest. These bi-lateral alliances include Brittany, the Basque Country, Flanders and Nord Holland. The alliance with Brittany is probably the most mature of these alliances because the cooperation agreement was originally signed in 2004 and refreshed in 2018. To appreciate what the Welsh Government expects from these alliances it is worth taking a real example. The Memorandum of Understanding it signed with Brittany on 11 January 2018 committed the two parties to cooperate in the following ways:
- to strengthen economic cooperation between the two regions particularly by acquiring a better knowledge of the economic characteristics of the two regions to identify the opportunities for co-operation regarding business-to-business exchanges,
- to develop cooperation in the field of education and training, within the limits of the competencies of the two regions, in particular by promoting youth exchanges in the field of initial or continuous training, higher education and formal education,
- to create relationships and share experience between the various cultural networks and their members/member organisations in Brittany and Wales (covering opportunities for live performance, participation in festivals etc.),
- to share and promote best practice regarding language planning between those institutions with responsibility for promoting the Breton and Welsh languages,
- to develop exchanges of experiences and information in all fields of mutual interest, including cybersecurity, sustainable development, renewable energy, tourism in particular in the field of water sports and sailing activities, and development of trade in the agrifood area.
If this is a template for the other bi-lateral alliances, it raises the question as to whether the Welsh Government has the institutional capacity – officer expertise and financial resources, etc. – to generate tangible benefits from these alliances. Eluned Morgan, the Minister for International Relations, is fully alive to this challenge and she has shrewdly recruited Nia Lewis to her team (Nia was formerly in the Welsh Government’s Brussels Office and has an extensive knowledge of Brussels-based networks). It is this type of expertise and experience that is essential for the development of Wales’ European strategy post-Brexit.
But severe capacity constraints mean that the Welsh Government urgently needs to embrace a stronger co-production ethos to work more closely with its partners in business, universities, civil society organisations and beyond. This network-based approach will deliver a double dividend: it will help Wales to draw on all its resources and it will send a compelling signal that international engagement is a matter for the whole nation and not just its government.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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