This is the text of a speech delivered to the Ammanford Twinning Association visit for the twin town of Breuillet on May 30th 2014 at Amman Valley School
It’s been a while since I’ve been back at this school. When I was a 17 year old student here I wrote an article for a Welsh newspaper on the growing trend of young people going away to study and never coming back.
Like so many others before me, and since, to access opportunities and challenges I had to leave this valley. My family are still here and I visit often. Even though I have now lived elsewhere for as long as I lived in Ammanford I always say I’m from the town. It is home.
But driving up and down these valley roads saddens me. While the community remains strong, and warm, the economy is getting weaker. Despite cosmetic changes there is no disguising it. This valley, and those around it, stands amongst the poorest parts of the enlarged European Union. Poorer than parts of Poland, Romania and Greece.
Membership of the EU has offered some comfort to our distressed state. Left to London Government’s alone there is little doubt that the state of our poorest regions would be even worse. And the poorest parts of Wales will continue to benefit from Convergence funding until 2020 - though helpful, let us not forget this is a badge of shame.
Since Jacques Delors’ leadership of the European Commission the concept of solidarity has been enshrined in the programmes of the EU. Delors was assisted by a native of the next valley, Hywel Ceri Jones from Clydach in the Swansea Valley, in making sure that the prosperity flowing from common trade was spread beyond the wealthiest parts of the EU.
My friend Hywel Ceri was also a pivotal figure in ensuing that young people gained more than purely economic advantages from our ‘ever closer union’. The ERASMUS programme – which he founded - aimed to bring some excitement to the arid notions of economic union. It was to ensure that the EU wasn't just about trade but was also about people.
By giving students the chance to study in other European countries it was hoped that young people would experience new cultures, form life-long friendships and become mobile across borders. It has been a huge success.
One of my favourite restaurants in Cardiff has been established by brothers who came to study through the ERASMUS programme and never left. Its sister project, the Leonardo project creates training placements across Europe for young people and a steady flow of French, Spanish and Italian students have helped me in the organisation I run. Equally the chance to teach in Paris for a year during her degree enriched the life of my wife – a fellow pupil of mine in this school – and we are still in touch with French friends made from that experience.
Similarly the links formed between our two towns over the last 15 years will be long lasting.
These are examples of how the social programmes developed by the European Union have brought to life the founding ideas of those scarred by the conflicts that tore apart our continent generation after generation.
The common memory of the consequences of disunity are fading. And it is difficult to evoke the nightmares of the 1930s and 40s with any effect on the modern generation of young people. Though I viscerally feel the wounds my grandfather had inflicted by War, my children will not understand.
The benefits of unification are also hard to sell to people who take them for granted. It is hard to imagine not being able to travel across Germany without stopping for hours and being searched at checkpoints, and being restricted in the amount of currency you take with you out of the country – assuming you can get a visa. The past is a foreign country after all.
The results of last week’s elections to the European Parliament show that the institutions of the EU have become remote from its people. Inevitably, as they were not formed by a popular uprising but by the determined efforts of elites.
The fixation with binding the whole of Europe into a single currency and common economic approach has back-fired. The views of many young people towards the EU – especially in southern Europe – are coloured by the tough austerity programme that has been administered to keep the Euro-zone together.
Greek citizens’ approval for the EU dropped from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013. In Spain it reduced by half from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.
In the UK a comprehensive opinion poll last month showed that a majority of voters in England would vote to leave the EU. And in Wales – where we tell ourselves we are more pro-European, in reality the margin is narrow: 39% would vote to stay in the EU, while 35% want to come out.
I suspect that when the referendum comes – as it surely will, and indeed should – minds will be concentrated on properly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages. It is hard to have a rational debate in the UK about Europe given the prejudices of the tabloid press, and the ideological blinkers of those on the left and right.
My own view is that the EU is deeply flawed. But that’s inevitable. It is a compromise – a grand bargain. A magnificently ambitious attempt to wire together ill-fitting nations into an awkward alliance, too big to fail. And bravo from me for trying.
I think it in the interests of the EU ruling elites to compromise to keep Britain in, and in our interests – when we have to face a real choice – to hold our nose and jump. Imperfect as it is, its achievements (too often taken for granted) are profound. I remember a senior Clinton campaign adviser in 1996 explaining to me and my fellow Congressional interns that as attention spans shortened through the new information age, it played into the hands of the right: it is far to scare someone in twenty seconds than it is to inspire someone.
That makes it all the more important that the social element of the European Union is maintained. It must be more than just a free trade area; the concept of solidarity must remain central to the way the EU develops if it is to persuade the young people of this valley that the benefits of our alliance are for all to share.