Brexit doubts grow in Wales as crunch vote looms
The 12 stars of the European Union flag are on proud display across Swansea University’s new campus.
The EU helped finance the site, along with many other projects in Wales, which voted in favour of Brexit in 2016 but is now having doubts as the day approaches.
“We’ve created real jobs. We’ve created jobs where you have high skills and we’ve been able to expand the campus,” Pro-Vice-Chancellor Iwan Davies told AFP on a recent visit.
The spectacular 26-hectare site on the sea is located close to the centre of this city of 245,000 people.
The EU has financed more than £100 million (112 million euros, $127 million) out of the total £450 million cost, helping the university’s bid to become a centre of excellence.
The project’s economic impact for Wales, which has some of Britain’s poorest regions, is estimated at £3.0 billion.
– EU funding ‘very important’ –
Swansea University is one of many EU funding recipients in Wales — from professional training projects to renewable energy technology and even a lido restoration and the modernisation of a motorway.
In the 2016 referendum, however, 52.5 percent in Wales voted to leave and the financing has only been guaranteed by the British government up to the end of 2020.
The Welsh government estimates EU funds for Wales at around £600 million a year for economic development and farming, on top of other programmes such as the Erasmus student exchange or Horizon 2020 for research and innovation.
“The funding we’ve had directly from the European Union has been very important to those parts of the Welsh economy that most need assistance,” said Mark Drakeford, Cabinet Secretary for Finance in Wales’s semi-autonomous government.
“In the last decade, European Union programmes have helped us create 45,000 new jobs in Wales and 13,000 new businesses,” he told AFP.
– ‘It’s so complicated’ –
For MPs preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime vote on whether or not to back Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday, views in places like Wales will be paramount.
The Welsh parliament held its own non-binding vote on the Brexit deal last week, with 57 percent against.
On the streets of Swansea, many residents still say that they want Britain to be the master of its own destiny by cutting off ties to the EU.
Others hesitate, however, worried about the catastrophic scenario of Britain crashing out of the EU with no agreement in place on March 29, 2019.
A poll by YouGov in November found that a 51-percent majority in Wales would now vote to stay in the EU.
“I did vote to leave but I thought just for us, to make our own decisions,” said Julie Matthews, a 56-year-old retail worker.
“But now I’m not sure. I think we’ve got a better deal staying in the EU,” she said.
Philip Griffiths, who sells plants at Swansea’s indoor market, said: “I would probably remain because of how divided Britain is now. It has divided the whole country.
“It’s so complicated. It’s not as easy as shutting the door and saying goodbye. It’s going to take time,” the 42-year-old said.
– ‘We cannot act in isolation’ –
Drakeford said he was concerned about what would happen beyond 2020 when the British funding guarantee stops.
“That is much less certain,” he said.
“People in Wales who voted to leave the European Union did so having heard a promise… that Wales would not be a penny worse off as a result from leaving the European Union.”
Despite the uncertainty, Davies said Swansea University was “confident” about its ability to retain foreign students.
But he said the university was also planning for a possible “worst case scenario” and would create their own international student exchange programme if needed.
“Whatever happens to Brexit, what we are concerned about is how we can open our doors to the world, because we know that we cannot act in isolation,” Drakeford said.