By Lucas Leblanc, Intern at the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC.
What does a recent three-month immersion at Wales’ National Assembly, the democratically-elected body founded to represent and govern Wales in 1998, teach a graduate in international relations from a U.S. university? To appreciate rugby, without a doubt, but also to better understand how the current debate on Britain’s membership in the EU relates to the country’s recent constitutional evolution, one in which Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the city of London gained greater levels of elected self-government in a process known as devolution.
Although surveys indicate a variation in Welsh voting intentions, with an April 2016 poll showing the leave camp narrowly ahead while one from the previous month indicated a notable lead for remaining, a recent study on the distribution of Euroscepticism in Britain illustrates a broad trend along the lines of devolution on the EU question: The Welsh, along with citizens of Scotland and of the City of London, tend to want to remain in the European club while much of the rest of England leans towards exit.
After all, Wales, with a population of only three million, receives approximately £500 million annually from EU funds, benefits substantially from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and participates in major EU capstones such as the Single Market and the Erasmus Program. The Welsh relationship with the EU, however, goes beyond a calculation of membership benefits. Perceiving the link with devolution, a January 2016 publication by a non-partisan initiative, The UK in a Changing Europe, notes that the devolved administrations have been able to shape their unique relationships with Europe based on their “different political priorities.”
To start, the Welsh connect with Europe’s institutions through four Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who interact regularly with their Welsh constituencies and collaborate with their devolved government on issues where competencies intersect. Similarly, Wales promotes its interests directly in EU institutions through its four representatives on the EU’s Committee of the Regions (CoR). Meanwhile, the Welsh Government, National Assembly, Welsh universities, and other groups liaise directly with the European capital through their offices in Brussels. Reciprocally, the European Commission has opened its own offices in Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast. The more direct relationships that have evolved between the devolved nations and Brussels may contribute to their leaderships’ closer relationship with the EU and, to a lesser extent, the weaker Euroscepticism of their publics relative to England.
UK policymakers should be alerted by a geographically-split decision on referendum day, whether to remain or leave the EU. If left unaddressed, such a gap could go beyond harming the island’s relations with the EU by damaging the ties that unite the kingdom itself. From the outset, an exit may renew calls for a Scottish independence referendum, risking a breakup of the UK. Conversely, a vote to stay may provide momentum to rethink the way England is governed. Considering the pattern of devolution that has occurred in its Celtic neighbors, a move for reform could give England and its people the ability to more effectively connect with the European project and the opportunities it has to offer.
Lucas Leblanc is a recent graduate in international relations from The College of William & Mary who completed an exchange program with the National Assembly for Wales in the autumn of 2015. He is currently a trainee at the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC. The views expressed above represent the author’s own.