Saturday, 26 July 2014

Does Wales make the most of EU opportunities?


It's been a while. There've been many changes. Nick Ramsey has no doubt been stumbling through the Ty Hywel corridors to Every Rose Has Its Thorn.

However, I couldn't resist returning to the rock stars of the Assembly Committee world – Business & Enterprise – and their inquiry report into EU funding opportunities from 2014-2020, which was launched at Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre last week (pdf).

A lot of this work overlaps with the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee inquiry into the Welsh role in EU decision-making.While that inquiry focused on the political and constitutional situation, this one was more focused on the economic, cultural and financial side of things.

The one thing you can take from both inquiries is the need for a clear strategy on Welsh involvement with the EU. It's a point raised before, but Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have a "more joined up approach" than we do. Meanwhile, concerns that EU funds in Wales have been misused, or Wales being constantly "left off the map", mean a revision of the Welsh Government's EU strategy is long overdue – something Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) is considering.

There were 16 recommendations in total, summarised as :
  • Ensuring any future EU strategy (Wales in Europe : What role do we play?) sets clear objectives and maximises Welsh involvement in EU programmes.
  • Developing tailored support; including the creation of an EU Funding Champion, a central contact point for EU funds and specialist support for the youth, transport and education sectors.
  • Addressing gaps in Welsh representation in Brussels (also raised in the Welsh EU role inquiry)
  • Setting clear objectives for Welsh universities to promote both studying abroad and  language courses as well as creating an alumnus of international students.
  • Local Government should develop their own action plans to make best use of EU funds.
  • Champion the Welsh creative sector in Europe, ensuring they're not disadvantaged in applying for EU funding because of the UK's strong TV industry.
  • Develop a closer working relationship with DG Move and TEN-T executives in Brussels - as well as the Irish – to ensure Wales gets the most out of pan-EU transport programmes.

EU Programmes – What are they?

When discussing "EU Programmes" in Wales, you'll automatically think "Objective One" (Structural Funds) or the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). There are, however, EU schemes that cover other activities and sectors worth up to €42billion. The inquiry focused on how Wales engages with these programmes and what can be done to ensure we get the most out of them.

These programmes include :
  • Erasmus+ (€14.7bn)
  • Connecting Europe/Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) (€15bn)
  • Regional Cooperation (INTERREG) (€8.7bn)
  • Creative Europe (€1.46bn)
  • Competitiveness of Small & Medium Sized Companies (COSME) (€2.03bn)

There's also the Horizon 2020 scheme which covers science and technology, but this wasn't within the inquiry's remit.

Welsh engagement with EU programmes

The EU Commission's Creative Europe programme helped fund Y Gwyll, but there were
concerns that the strength of the UK's media sector may disadvantage Wales.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Although Wales engages with many of these programmes – like INTERREG, Creative Europe and some of the education programmes - a recurring theme is that the high priority and narrow focus given to structural funds (Objective One and CAP) has limited Welsh involvement elsewhere.

There are specialist European officers in local government and higher education – often with a presence in Brussels – but there's nothing similar for the youth, private and voluntary sectors. The benefits from participating in these programmes are potentially huge and such groups may be missing out unnecessarily.

In the Welsh Government's evidence they say some programmes are easier to work with and win funding from than others, so they often had to target their resources carefully. They intend to review how they interact with the EU, but with no set timetable. This led to the Committee supporting previous calls for a full EU Strategy, citing the Irish and Danish governments own successful strategies.

It was said Wales isn't "as switched on" as other countries, with an example given of one academic who was working with the INTERREG programme having no contact whatsoever with the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO). There was also a lack of proper communication with businesses, with calls for a "clear contact point" based outside Wales for foreign companies looking to work with Welsh partners.

There was a specific focus on the creative industries sector, and the EU programme Creative Europe. The EU Commission's media programme "provides support for film productions from pre-production through to distribution, primarily in the form of direct grants to companies and organisations". This scheme provided support towards the production of Y Gwyll/Hinterland.

Media Antenna Wales – part of the Welsh Government's creative industries team – provides support to companies and producers seeking to work with Creative Europe, often helping them negotiate the bureaucracy and form-filling that comes with EU programmes. This level of specialist support was praised and said to be something to emulate in other sectors.

There was, however, a worry that because the UK has a "strong audio-visual industry" overall, Welsh creative companies would be overlooked or disadvantaged when applying for EU funds. Better Together?

International Mobility

Although Wales attracts its fair share of Erasmus funding and
participation, twice as many students are incoming as outgoing.
(Pic : BBC)
Erasmus, now reformed into Erasmus+, is a general exchange programme aimed at all aspects of the university sector. The British Council is in charge of this at a UK level and says Wales is "attracting its share of the budget in relation to population size" (€11million between 2006-07 and 2012-13).

The benefits of participating in Erasmus are said to include : greater employability, improved self-esteem and there was evidence that academic performance improves too. There's also a knock-on impact to universities themselves, as Erasmus can leave a good impression on students studying here and could be adapted to provide a trade boost that runs into the tens of millions of pounds.

One big barrier is that there are twice as many incoming students to Wales as there are outgoing. Lower Welsh take-up rates are said to be down to numerous factors like : language barriers, lack of engagement by academics, lack of awareness, financial problems and lack of confidence. Also, participation was markedly lower from "new universities".

Cardiff University's Prof. Colin Riordan set a target of 17% of graduating students spending some study time abroad by 2017, having set up a £1.6million bursary fund to help achieve it. At the moment the rate is 12%.

Despite his ambition being praised, these levels of participation fall far short of Germany, which has a 50% target. Prof. Riordan said levels of engagement on this matter with the Welsh Government were "low" and that it wasn't afforded a high level of status.

Colegau Cymru suggested the creation of a "one-stop shop" within the Welsh Government for lifelong learning programmes, while Swansea University suggested the Welsh Government could do more to help universities and colleges access EU funding programmes.

There was also confusion over youth volunteering and youth work. The British Council no longer want to work with devolved bodies on this (in Wales' case Connect Cymru), but said that was because they're changing how they're working with them as there was little evidence of the benefits and effectiveness of youth work and youth volunteering programmes.

International Co-operation

A lot of the Welsh participation in INTERREG is wrapped up in the Ireland-Wales programme.
(Pic : EU Commission)
There were 89 INTERREG projects in Wales during the 2007-13 funding period, attracting €41.5million in EU funding. Most of this went towards Irish-Welsh co-operation.

Colegau Cymru said there are specific challenges here, as in order to get funding, projects need to be managed not only across institutions but across borders around the EU. Milford Haven Port Authority also said there hadn't been enough engagement with the private sector.

Local councils say that while they've participated in programmes like INTERREG, much of their focus has been on structural funding (Objective One, European Social Fund) and rural development. They pointed towards the lack of Welsh Government advice and contacts, with Conwy Council adding – in rather parochial terms – that "their only priority is their own local area".

The Committee underlined the lack of a joined-up approach, but also a lack of ambition by local councils, which is "in marked contrast to the further education sector". They called on the WLGA to display leadership.

Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T)

Wales - left off an EU map....again.
And the Welsh Government hasn't helped matters either.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
TENT-T is described as a "set of strategically significant road, rail, air, water transport networks" identified by the EU as particularly important to the internal market.

Wales isn't currently on any of the core network corridors, though Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) said Welsh experts were sent as part of the UK team when drafting the maps. Milford Haven and the north Wales coast mainline were subsequently added at the request of the UK Government.

Milford Haven Port Authority say there's a significant amount of money that could be available to Wales to develop freight facilities, but too much focus has been on passengers. Holyhead was also excluded from TEN-T as a core port, despite its pretty important role in linking Great Britain to Ireland – though it falls short of Liverpool in terms of tonnage.The Committee say that the negotiating process between Cardiff, London and Brussels was "confused and opaque".

Also, in an astonishing admission, Wales didn't make any applications to, and secured no funding from, the TEN-T programme as of January 2014. Edwina Hart has confirmed, however, that a business case for improvements to the Crewe-Holyhead railway through TEN-T is underway.

The Answer : "Wales could do more"

To repeat myself, there's a clear need for some sort of high level strategy – as much as I loathe such things – and many of the Committee's recommendations make sense. EU programmes also have to be put in a much wider context than structural and agricultural funds as they have important cultural and educational aspects as well.

The lack of proper engagement with TEN-T, however, is a hidden national disgrace and signifies incredible laziness on the part of the Welsh Government. Even a slither of TEN-T funding could've gone a long way towards bringing forward projects like rail electrification or upgrading parts of the A55. I suppose they deserve credit for getting the ball rolling on the north Wales mainline at least.

I suppose in a way this is a complement or follow-up to my 2012 post -"What Wales gets from the European Union".

The answer is, quite clearly, "a lot". If the Welsh Government properly organised itself and started to put the work in the answer would be "even more" - and not just in monetary terms.


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