The Tory psychodrama on Europe is about to end, and it is time for the rest of us to set out the real case for our membership of the European Union. I never thought I’d ever be able to detect common ground between Alan Johnson, the superb leader of Labour’s “In” campaign, and Nathan Gill, the Ukip leader in Wales. But, they are both right to say that the negotiations that David Cameron is undertaking at the moment are really a side show to the much bigger argument we need to have about the future of the EU, and what sort of country we want to live in.
I will say that is very definitely where the similarities between Alan and Nathan end.
I have no doubt that Cameron’s deal, should it be successfully struck in the coming days, will represent some progress especially on fairness in relation to benefits. But, it will only be some progress. Its only true measure of success will be what it does to the group of wavering Tory MPs in Westminster, which tells you all you need to know. The Prime Minister needs to realise very quickly that membership of the European Union isn’t just a standing agenda item for the 1922 Committee any more, this is an agenda item for the whole of Britain.
In Wales, we have seen two recent polls that show a wavering in the traditional support for EU membership. I’ve little doubt that this is at least partially explained by the parlour game being played out in Brussels in recent months. The uncertainty combined with obvious political manoeuvring makes it very difficult for the real arguments to get a fair hearing. Whether it is on trade, investment, the environment, co-operation or national security, we haven’t yet had the space to get those arguments to the fore. And those of us who have always been in favour of trying to reform from the inside, to be on the pitch, not the sidelines, also need to show we are ready to say and do more.
On Monday this week, I was in Airbus in north Wales launching our election pledges for May. I was there specifically to focus on the amazing success of our apprenticeship programme and the 100,000 extra apprentices we will deliver next term, partially through EU funding support. But that visit also highlighted Airbus as a shining beacon of the Welsh economy and a classic example of European co-operation at its best. It would represent a complete breakdown of any rational political thinking to say to the 6000 people who work there that leaving the EU is a risk worth taking.
A leap in the dark is not an economic strategy, and yet that’s what Ukip and the Brexiteers are proposing. A leap in the dark is not something you would ever advocate for your own family and friends – so to ask your country to step off the ledge wouldn’t just be economically bonkers, it would also be working against our people’s interests.
The mishmash of the Assembly election and European debate is not what we wanted in Wales. But, we will deal with what comes, above all we are a deeply pragmatic bunch. So whenever the referendum comes, there will be no question that we are going to fight for a brighter, more optimistic future for our country. A Wales, and Britain inside the EU, facing the world with confidence. We will focus on the real issues, and the sooner we can move on from the Tory sideshow the easier that will be for us all.