Winning the argument for Europe

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It’s perhaps not surprising that the Institute of Welsh Affairs is giving the impression of being very pleased with itself. By securing a debate between the First Minister and the UKIP Leader on the future of the European Union they have certainly got the new year off to a bright start. There aren’t many political events in Wales that are sold out immediately. It’s little wonder that Plaid are spitting mad. But Plaid would be well advised to focus on the day-job rather than to exercise an unearned hubris and an undeserved sense of entitlement on the airwaves.

In many ways tonight’s debate will help to frame May’s Assembly elections in the wider context of the EU referendum which it now appears will be held a month later. Whilst not entirely helpful for those purists who want us to discuss nothing except domestic issues from now until polls close on May 5th, it does recognise the hard reality of the real world and many in Welsh Labour will also welcome this wider context for different reasons.

I am told that it was Carwyn who actively sought out this opportunity to take on Farage in this debate. Many of us will be pleased by this determination. Carwyn is not a natural or emotional European in the same way as Rhodri who lived and breathed the European project. Rhodri could not wait to get on the Eurostar whilst Carwyn does so only when necessary. In this way he is a pragmatic European, recognising the strength of the EU and the advantages that it brings to Wales but not signed up to a political project. And perhaps ironically this ruthlessly pragmatism may well be Carwyn’s big advantage in a debate against an ideologue who is wrapped up in a number of different contradictions and who has a fundamentally hard right wing libertarian approach to politics, much of which is not to Welsh tastes.

So how do we take on UKIP and win this debate?

First and foremost we need to make and win the arguments for Europe anew. Carwyn will need to be at the top of his game and will need to be very well-briefed and informed. Farage has been fighting this battle for years. And whilst his grasp of reality and the facts can sometimes but a little less than secure, his performances are always assured and confident. But we need to do more than simply win an argument between two accountants over a balance sheet.

I believe that as a nation we do tend to be more pro-European than our friends across Offa’s Dyke but we share a media that is overwhelming anti-European and that will continue to have a defining impact on the campaign to come. To sit back and expect a strong pro-EU vote to fall into our laps because of the supposed impact of structural funds or farm subsidies would a mistake of historic proportions.

In this way the referendum campaign will be about who we are as a nation as much as it will be about a retail offer (as they say in political circles) or simply seeing our relationship with the European Union as a a transactional one whereby we stay if its profitable for us to do so with the inevitable consequence that we leave if the equation changes at some point in the future.

For me Europe helps to make sense of our place in the world. As a minister speaking for Wales in European Councils and elsewhere I made the point that it was my purpose to not only address the issues on the desk in front of me but to strengthen, broaden and deepen Wales’ wider relationship with the institutions and peoples of the European Union as well. As a part of the UK we can have our cake and eat it. As a constituent government of one of the major players in the Union we have access to influence and resources and with a powerful Welsh Government presence and programme we can make those UK resources work for Welsh interests. It’s not perfect and there are many in the UK Government who still have a lot to learn about the reality of being a federal state in terms of representing a whole-UK perspective but it could be a lot worse as well.

And we need to be far more street-wise in how we articulate this message. The politics of UKIP are not simply the politics of anti-Europe and anti-immigration they are also the anti-politics political party. Some very rich, right-wing and privileged public school boys have managed to persuade too many people that they are the anti-establishment party. And it is this anti-politics that is driving their vote in many constituencies, including my own. In winning the argument this evening Carwyn will need to both recognise and expose this confidence trick as well. We need to make the case for not only a wider inclusive and tolerant Europeanism but also the case for politics itself. And a politics which isn’t based upon an easy lazy cynicism whilst promoting distrust and suspicion. We need to win the argument for Europe whilst also winning the argument for a politics which can represent peoples’ values, effect change and restore trust and confidence.

So this evening I will be not only be supporting Carwyn Jones in taking on Nigel Farage in this single debate but in arguing for a fundamentally different vision of the future of our country. And for me it is emotional and not simply a matter of dry economics. As a father of young children the vision of Wales as a part of a nineteenth century Ruritanian vision of an isolationist English state is the stuff of nightmares. I want us to create a different place and a different future for all our children. A place of tolerance and a place that looks out on a world with confidence and optimism and not with suspicion and sometimes a xenophobic contempt for different cultures and different people. And that means not only winning a political debate and winning votes in May or June but it means winning hearts and minds as well.

A question of leadership

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I understand that the Prime Minister has now written to the President of the European Council with the list of his demands. He has apparently told an unhappy Donald Tusk that unless these demands are met by the Council representing the other 27 Member States of the European Union then he will recommend that the UK leaves the EU.

This is not a debate that will benefit Wales and neither will it help address the challenges facing us as a nation. We need to be building a consensus for change across the EU which will help invest in a green economy and sustainable growth and can bring peace and stability to a region that all too often seems to be in turmoil. Never before have I felt so strongly that a UK Prime Minister is not speaking on my behalf and neither is he speaking on behalf of Wales or acting in the best interests of Wales. He is entirely careless of the needs and interests of Wales. He sounds like like an English Prime Minister and acts like a nineteenth century potentate.

David Cameron has a reputation in Brussels of being a poor diplomat. He attempts to create unnecessary arguments with our closest friends and allies in order to placate a Conservative Party that is riven by an unpleasant and sometimes chauvinistic nationalism. Most people in Brussels regard this as tiresome and many wish that he had the strength and courage to take on and defeat those loud strident voices at home. Almost all are now accustomed to, and resigned to, this sort of megaphone diplomacy where the UK position on any given issue is determined by the prejudices of newspaper editors and dependent on domestic political positioning rather than a principled and far-sighted approach to the issues facing the continent and the Union.

I remember being in Strasbourg and Brussels during the week following Cameron’s late night and apparently almost accidental use of the UK veto in December 2011. Council of Ministers is always a more measured environment than the intensity of Strasbourg but even there I was told in graphic language how Cameron had isolated the UK, not simply by his actions, but by his approach and attitude to an issue which was critical to the management of the Eurozone crisis – “ he kicked us when we were down and needed help”. UK diplomats shook their heads and wrung their hands shrinking back into a role of apologetic observers rather than their preferred role of princes in a modern concert of Europe.

In conversation with people in Brussels I am struck by their patience, calmness and their stoicism in the face of the increasingly bellicose tone of these speeches and statements. Cameron has been asked time and again for a clear statement of the UK position with the Commission taking the not unreasonable position that it is difficult to negotiate anything without knowing and understanding what the UK wants to achieve. Only so much can be gleaned from reading the Sunday papers.

I regret to say but on Monday and again yesterday he has spoken with a vulgarity and pomposity, making demands on our friends rather than engaging in an intelligent conversation about the issues we face as Europeans. He would have achieved far greater reform and a different approach to many issues from immigration to the operation of the internal market had he approached the matter with a different tone and less vivid language.

The Balance of Competences launched with a grand fanfare by William Hague was supposed to provide the basis for this renegotiation. Hague forecast that it would set the context for the last general election and that all parties would look to it when writing their manifestoes. The great minds of the Foreign Office were set to work to examine the relationship between the UK and the EU and to report on where competences should properly lie. Unhappily for Cameron the resulting document found that, broadly, the balance of competences was in the right place. It found that the EU did those things best done at a European level and the UK did those things best done by a member state. With those findings the document was buried so deeply that it’s difficult to find on Google.

The impression is given that this is an operation that is driven from Downing Street and that their fixer, Tom Scholar, has at least tried to learn some lessons from the previous disastrous interventions. But he may have learnt the wrong lessons. In Cameron’s odyssey around EU capitals the whole enterprise has been framed in aggressive language and attitude calibrated to appeal more to Tory backbenchers than the more sensitive European diplomats for whom only an occasional nod or nuance is required. Again he is not the team player and does not know how to be a team leader.

At the same time there has been little, if any, engagement with the devolved administrations. The UK Government is quick to assert its right to speak on behalf of the UK in these things pointing out that foreign affairs are reserved matters. However it is more than a little clear that this whole process has a significant impact on all of the devolved administrations. For instance, if Cameron wishes to give “national parliaments’ the right to become more involved in the process of legislation (or more accurately to object to legislation) then will this also apply to those subjects such as agriculture or environment which are devolved and where the UK Parliament acts essentially like an English Parliament?

The four baskets of demands vary from the straightforward to the bizarre. The UK Government makes much of its demands over ever-closer union but does not appear to have read the end of that famous sentence which appears in the preamble to the current founding Treaty of the EU.

RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity

Many of us wish that the UK Government had not only read but had understood the meaning of that statement before they started work on the draft Wales Bill. What on earth is wrong with a union of people (not governments) where decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen? Perhaps it’s time for a UK Balance of Competences?

But perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that it has entirely abrogated any sense of British leadership in Europe. Losing Helmut Schmidt yesterday reinforces the sense of a continent lacking in leadership. These are difficult times, a fractured Middle East is at the heart of conflicts on our doorstep from the Ukraine to northern Africa. We face enormous global challenges. This week’s UN report on climate change has been drowned out of the news and the cost of the financial crisis is still being counted not only in capitals and financial centres across the world but in the homes of millions of people who face increasing uncertainty. All of this screams out for leadership and a vision of the future. Whatever we may make of Cameron’s baskets, one thing is clear and unarguable. They are not a vision of a different EU and not a vision of active European leadership in an uncertain world.

The tragedy of Aylan

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I hope that both The Sun and Katie Hopkins are deeply ashamed of themselves. Those words and the decision to publish them were both not only wrong but immoral. And this week those words have become haunting. Does Katie look at Aylan’s body and still not care? And what of The Sun’s editor? Does The Sun feel any responsibility for any of this?

The image of Aylan Kurdi has dominated the front pages of newspapers this week, including with some extraordinary hypocrisy, The Sun itself. The heartbreaking picture of his small body lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey is powerful and made all the more powerful when it first appeared on social media alongside hundreds of photos of smiling children on their first day at school.

It is one of the most distressing and painful images that we’ve seen for years. He could have been my son or anyone’s son. And subsequent photos of him with his older brother and an interview with his dad paints a picture of a happy little boy which helps make this tragedy all the more real for all of us.

His death is a direct challenge to the position taken by the UK Government and by governments across Europe. It is a test for Cameron and it is a test for Europe. And it speaks volumes of the crisis of leadership across our continent that Germany appears to be the only state that recognises the scale of the response needed. It is a crisis of morality in our society, in our media and in our politics.

In Aylan’s death I hope that we will all face, and try to answer, the question as to why are we so resistant to the idea of taking people to our homes and protecting them from extreme violence? Surely this is at the heart of our humanity and who we believe ourselves to be as a nation and as a country?

Our history is one where we have welcomed people to our shores and offered them the protection and support that they need and that we can share. Such headlines attacking the kinder transport in the thirties would have been inconceivable so why is escaping from Kobane so different today? Clearly the scale and the numbers are huge, but we are richer today, we have the experience of the past and we have the structures of European governance that we didn’t have 80 years ago.

This summer has been one where our screens and papers have been filled with the human impact of the wars in the Middle East and Africa. As we’d expect parts of the press have been most guilty of creating a an image of desperate people trying to escape war, slaughter and genocide as a threat to our holiday plans. But I can think of no part of the media that has emerged from this summer with much integrity.

Where was the public outcry when the article described above was published in The Sun? At what point did describing human beings as “cockroaches” become an acceptable part of our public discourse? At one level it’s possible to dismiss Katie Hopkins and The Sun as examples of the worst parts of the gutter press, but what of David Cameron describing people in Calais as a “swarm”? In terms of creating a national mood are they really so different? What is certainly different is that David Cameron should know better than to play to this particular gallery.

But why are we surprised? The events and coverage of this summer are not new. For too long we have allowed a debate on immigration which has been largely driven by anti-Europeans and the rest of the right wing all fuelled by their cheerleaders in The Sun, Daily Mail and the rest. And their hypocrisy when confronted with the reality of the atmosphere that they themselves have helped create is simply sickening. Rather than confront and challenge this debate, all too often we have run away from the difficult choices involved in taking on these arguments and winning a public debate based on principle, doing the right thing and our basic humanitarian instincts.

It’s nearly 70 years since Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language and it is striking how his invective against weasel words and opaque phraseology would be true today and never so true as now. We have used terms like “migrant” or “Asylum-seeker” as pejorative terms to disguise the real human impact of policies that have been pursued by the government in our name and on our behalf. The media have, either through idleness or intent, also made use of the same language to perpetuate a story that poor people who are risking everything to survive the horrors of Syria and escape the genocidal Islamic State are a threat to our lives and our communities. Again language is defining not only the terms of the debate but helping to create a nasty intolerant culture which has dehumanised both them and us.

And Alylan’s death is the direct consequence of this culture and this political failure.

And the political failure is profound. For far too long we have run away from challenging the rhetoric of UKIP and their friends on the far-right. We have become accustomed to the language of chauvinism and the fear and intolerance of those people who are not from around here or who are different to us. We blamed Eastern European nurses and African cleaners for the depth of the economic crisis because its easier than asking the really tough questions. It’s no wonder that we haven’t heard from Farage over the last few days.

The language and tone of the UK Government and particularly Cameron over the last 24 hours has been appalling. Ironically the UK’s approach to securing safety and security for people close to their homes is not intrinsically wrong or bad. But their failure to recognise that approach is a wholly inadequate response is criminal. My fear is that the reality of this policy is that it is driven by fear of the press and the right wing than it is driven by the desire to do the right thing

It is telling that it is Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon as First Ministers in Wales and Scotland who are making clear that both countries are ready and willing to play our part. The optimist inside me believes that is a further example of how the politics of Wales and Scotland are becoming increasingly different and more tolerant than that of the hot-house of Westminster. I hope that since some Conservatives, all the candidates for the Labour leadership and other backbenchers are also demanding urgent action that the culture of that place may change as well.

Given the scale of the media coverage of Aylan’s death it appears that in death he will be accorded more respect than in life. But it is a real tragedy that it has taken this little boy’s terrible death to galvanise European leaders to take action and to shame the UK press into silence. Why is it always this way? I remember witnessing at first hand the human impact of genocide in Rwanda and again in the Balkans. In both cases it took a public outcry over the deaths of thousands of people before politicians took action. As politicians we really must live up to the post-Rwanda slogan of “Never Again” and to make it real.

But let us be clear. Doing the right thing today means going beyond refugee quotas and protection of the aid budget. It means a determined challenge to those chauvinists who have stigmatised and demonised other people because of where they were born, their language or their customs.

Leaving the EU – the nightmare facing Welsh agriculture

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The new EU Agriculture Commissioner visited the Royal Welsh Show on Monday. Later in the week the UK Prime Minister will visit the Showground. It’s a shame that they didn’t meet.

The Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is a former Irish Environment Minister who found the reform of local government there every bit as difficult as our own Leighton Andrews is finding here. He is the first Irish Agriculture Commissioner since Ray MacSharry whose name is still quoted in certain circles as the man who finally managed to set CAP on the road to reform. It was his 1992 agreement which, although a compromise, is widely seen as the beginning of a process that saw a move away from guaranteed high prices to a system of direct income support which is more easily managed by governments. A double-edged sword maybe, but without that fundamental change it is difficult to see how the CAP could have survived in any form at all.

So now all eyes are on Phil Hogan. And expectations are high. And for those of us who favour further reform he has made a good start.

He was very clear earlier this month that he would not intervene in the dairy sector, telling an unhappy Council of Ministers that the industry will need to recognise market signals and respond to market pressures. His good friend, and former Council President, the popular Irish Minister, Simon Coveney, must have been disappointed. Hogan has shown every intention of pursuing a reformist agenda and one which will reflect the wider political, financial and economic priorities of President Juncker’s Commission.

And this is important. CAP is one area of policy that is quoted by both those people who wish to leave the EU and those of us who wish to remain in the EU as justification for their position. It will be a central part of our political debate over the coming years and the positions adopted by Hogan and the Commission will influence that debate. Many farmers will be disappointed or will disagree with the way that CAP is being implemented in their country and certainly many people disagreed with my decisions as minister but I can think of no farmer who believes that they themselves, or the industry as a whole, would be better off outside the European Union.

The Welsh Minister, Rebecca Evans, is absolutely right to focus on the importance of the EU to Welsh agriculture and to rural Wales during the Commissioner’s visit. The simple fact is that without CAP and without the payment system that it brings with it, Welsh agriculture and the rural economy would collapse tomorrow. Taken together CAP funds provide over £250m to invest in individual farm businesses and the wider agricultural economy every year. But it does far more than that. In terms of welfare and husbandry standards it provides a quality standard that is recognised across the world. It also provides access to a structured and regulated market which underpins consumer confidence and despite current difficulties it is essential to the future success of the industry.

And if we were not in the EU we would still need to maintain these minimum standards and meet these demands. We would still have to fill in the forms – the red tape wouldn’t disappear but the funding that CAP also delivers would disappear. And we would also have to comply without any influence at all over the rules and how they are agreed. In short it would be the worst of all worlds. This is also where the debate on EU membership becomes entirely disingenuous.

The Tory/UKIP argument that either the UK or Welsh Governments would introduce a system of domestic subsidies is fanciful at best. Which party would prioritise direct funding for farmers over the NHS or over schools or over new roads or railways? And if they did so then how would they win an election? I actually believe in the importance of these funding streams. I argued for the maintenance of direct support for farmers whilst listening to UK Tory ministers arguing for the immediate abolition of CAP direct payments. But I’m not sure that I could go to the voters of Blaenau Gwent and argue for those payments rather than funding our local NHS. And I can’t think of many politicians in any party who think differently – whatever they may say in Llanelwedd.

And despite all the criticisms made of CAP, there is one aspect of it that is inescapable. It works.

I well remember the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, happily launching the UK Government’s Balance of Competences exercise which would examine all aspects of the Uk’s relationship with the EU. This, he told a hushed and expectant meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, would dominate the 2015 General Election. It would frame and shape the manifestoes of all the political parties, it would enable us to make judgements based on a hard-headed analysis of the pros and cons of EU membership. He could barely contain his excitement. Unhappily for the Tories and UKIP this hard-headed analysis demonstrated that, on balance, EU competence over agriculture made sense and was beneficial for Welsh farmers. It proposed no change to the status quo.

In fact the whole exercise was a disaster for those who expected it to make the case for a UK exit. A whole new department was created in the Foreign Office where their greatest minds were set to work on this career-defining work. And page after page and chapter after chapter it finds that the current balance of competences between the EU and member states broadly makes sense. It should therefore be a surprise to no-one that Hague’s great bright hopes for the exercise turned to dust. Today, only three years after it was launched, no-one remembers the exercise. And it certainly did not dominate the general election, inform our judgements or influence our manifestoes. It’s been so deeply buried that it’s even difficult to find on Google. A lesson learnt.

Cameron’s policy of seeking a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is potentially the most destructive threat facing Welsh agriculture today. Many on the Conservative benches in Cardiff Bay criticised me for my decision to transfer 15% of the subsidies paid to farmers to another budget to support not only agriculture but the wider rural economy. But their own Prime Minister doesn’t simply  appear to care little for this 15% but wishes to abandon the other 85% as well.

It is first time that I can remember any UK Government actively pursuing a policy that is so detrimental to Welsh national interests. I know that Rebecca Evans will be making the case for Welsh and UK membership of the EU and I trust that everyone who wishes to see Welsh agriculture grow and flourish will join her in doing so.