The Wales, the United Kingdom and Europe: Europeanising Devolution conference (Cardiff, 24 May 2013) presented a paradox for Wales’s engagement with the EU; while Europe is extremely important for Wales engagement seems to be lacking.
On the one hand it was recognised that the EU has the potential to offer Wales several benefits. On top of access to structural funds there were opportunities for policy learning, economic investment and improvements to organisational culture gained by being more outward looking. EU engagement also had the potential to assist with devolution, offering legitimacy to sub-state concerns.
Yet despite how important Europe is for Wales, preliminary results from the Territorial Governance in Western Europe research project (follow them on Twitter: @TERGOV) highlighted that European issues were not at the forefront of Welsh public policy. Results indicated that European issues were only a “peripheral” dimension to Welsh actors. Furthermore, the public sector (particularly local government) only had a very limited knowledge of key EU initiatives, such as Europe 2020. More than anything there was a need for ‘capacity building’ in the Welsh public sector to get the knowledge and skills required to make the most of EU engagement. A number of structural factors also hindered Welsh EU engagement, such as a lack of fiscal autonomy, constitutional limits and national elites in London wanting to make sure European activities remain a Westminster concern.
But there was cause for optimism. Academic and practitioner presentations reflected on the diversity of approaches undertaken by some of Wales’s transnational partner regions, showing how different regions had coped with varying degrees of state centralisation and other barriers to effectively engage at a European level.
The paradox faced by Wales is no doubt faced by other regions and sub-national governments; the conference highlighted the need to look to Europe, not only to secure the potential benefits on offer, but to learn from others about how best to access them.