Brexit and stateless nations: why does Cornwall have Eurosceptics?

St Ives harbour, Cornwall.
St Ives harbour, Cornwall. Author: John Stratford
John Tredinnick-Rowe // There has been something of a European spring for civic nationalist movements in the EU over the last 3 years when it comes to plebiscites. Scotland and Catalonia arguably gaining the most attention with binding a non-binding referendums consecutively,  but there also has been attempts to hold referendums in Veneto, Sardinia, South Tyrol and Gagauzia. Nationalia has covered much of this in detail alreadyi including the fact that the issue still remains salient outside of Europe as well, such as Norfolk Island and its relationship with the Australian government.ii  One referendum that has yet to come to pass, but will have potentially large implications for stateless nations in Europe is the British referendum on its continuing membership of the European Union or Brexit as it is known.

At the end of 2015 the polling data on the voting intentions for the referendum indicated that the gap between staying-in and leaving the EU was narrowing to a few percentage points, with some polls showing a majority for exiting the European Union. A position that has only occurred a handful of times since 1977. Whilst the referendum was not triggered by a civic nationalist movement (although some have called Euroscepticism a ‘very English disease’) it will without doubt have an effect on those movements, not least as a potential trigger for Scottish and Welsh independence. It’s generally considered that Wales and Scotland hold more pro-European views that their English or Northern Irish counterparts; this position is more marginal in relation to Wales.

Less considered is the effect that the EU referendum will have on other stateless nations in the UK such as Cornwall.  Cornwall in particular has a more complicated and difficult relationship with the EU than Scotland. Cornwall has been receiving structural funds from the European Union since 1999 because its GDP is less than 75% of the EU average. Putting it in the same statistical category as Transylvania, Sicily and parts of Wales.

The current funding arrangement from the European Union, termed the Cornwall Growth Programme runs from 2014-2020, and it is worth €100 million per year to Cornwall. The prior arrange Cornwall had in terms of subsidy, known as the Convergence Fund from 2007-2013 was similarly €633 million over 6 years. A significant amount of money for a country with a population of only half a million people. This valuable income has funded university departments, airports, train station, local industry, and infrastructure projects. Although some would argue that this funding hasn’t helped Cornwall out of poverty, but has managed to stop its economy going further into decline (Corner, Mark. The European Union: An Introduction, 2014).

In addition to the substantial amount of subsidy from the EU, the Council of Europe was the first to include the Cornish in the Framework Convention for Protection of National Minorities, and the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Long before the UK government ratified the charters. Indeed it was also European law that introduced Protected Geographic Status (PGS), and Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for traditional Cornish food products.

Despite the economic subsidy, and recognition of language and cultural distinctiveness that long predate any similar efforts made by the London government, Cornwall remains arguably one of the most Eurosceptic parts of the United Kingdom. One might reasonably ask why? Also why does this issue arise in Cornwall but not in Scotland? Or to a lesser extent Wales?

Historically, until the 1980s nationalist political parties in Cornwall such as Mebyon Kernow had been opposed to the European Union, or what at that time was usually termed the common market. However, the current approach by most in the nationalist movement is generally reformist. If one were to look at Mebyon Kernow’s official policy it states that “The Europe of today is one of centralisation, limited democratic control, big business and bureaucracy.” This statement contains positions that would not be out of places in either left wing (big business, centralisation) or right wing (bureaucracy, democratic control) eurosceptic movements. But yet the party membership and its candidates routinely take a reformist position. Mebyon Kernow policy documents also talk about the need for reform of the CAP and fishing quotas. Stating that while the EU has many imperfections; isolation from the EU would be far worse.

The fundamental difference between the eurosceptic movements and the nationalist movement  are twofold. Firstly the nationalist see the EU as reformable, the eurosceptics do not. The nationalists see leaving the EU as isolationist whereas the eurosceptics do not. The nationalist’s arguments in regard to continuing membership of the European Union are primarily economic, and predicated on existing patterns of behaviour shown by the central government in London. That is to state funding for health, education services and infrastructures is significantly lower in Cornwall than the UK average, and historically the government has shown little interest in putting money or subsidies into provincial areas far from London. In this regard the European Union has filled the gap caused by disinterested central government.

Agricultural subsidies are particularly important for the region as food production for tourism and export represent a large proportion of the Cornish economy. Removal of these subsidies could see an unprecedented increase in unemployment. The counter argument to this point is that the £9-12 billion (estimates vary) that the UK pays into the EU every year will be used as a substitute for the absence of EU monies. This repatriation of EU funds however has become an un-costed eurosceptic shibboleth that can be used to placate those with doubts about an exit. 

In summation, from a nationalist perspective the promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ in repatriated EU membership money remains speculative, given successive government’s mismanagement and disinterest in the Cornish economy. The more salient issue is how central government would act in the event of Brexit, and would it suddenly be able and willing to fill the economic gap left by the loss of European money?  It would seem that inside or outside the EU Cornwall will still be saddled with Westminster. To which end, it is probably be better to be inside the EU with a safety net, rather than outside it with none at all.

This however does not explain the existing Euroscepticism in Cornwall. Some have suggested that the populous in Cornwall is simply sceptical of all forms of government, both in London but also in Brussels. Something reflected in Cornwall’s own elected body, which has arguably the highest number of elected independent councillors who are not affiliated with a political party in the UK.

Most in the UK expect the referendum to occur at some point in 2016.The danger for the nationalist movements (much like other political movements both conservative and liberal) is that it might exposes differences in opinions that up until now have been accommodated in a broad church of political thought. As political schism seems to have gripped both the governing Conservative party and the opposition Labour Party as well, this is perhaps to be expected. Given the closeness of the poles, Brexit is not certain but political turmoil almost certainly is. Some Breton activists have argued that in this moment of difficulty, it is about time for stateless nations to argue for a different Europe, a more equal Europe. A principle the Cornish nationalist movement will have to continue to embrace if it is to avoid division.

John Tredinnick-Rowe is research assistant at the University of Plymouth.

Keywords: Cornwall, European Union, referendum, Scotland, United Kingdom, Wales