Following the momentous results of last June, Plaid Cymru now holds two out of the five Welsh seats in the European Parliament. The historic Assembly and local government elections, in the European Election Campaign, Plaid polled 30% of the total vote.
The significance of this result can be illustrated by the fact that we had 43,000 votes more than the Conservatives and trailed Labour by less than 15,000 votes making Plaid Cymru almost the largest party. This rounded off a very significant campaign for the party.
The introduction of a new system of Proportional Representation and the creation of one all-Wales constituency means that Plaid Cymru MEPs now represent every person and every community in Wales - from Alun & Deeside to Monmouth. It also means that the old distinction between the North Wales Euro Seat, the Mid Wales Euro Seat and the three South Wales Euro Seats no longer applies. This is good news for electors who now have a choice of 3 parties to promote the interests of Wales, and it gives Wales a strong voice in Europe.
In the European Parliament, Plaid Cymru is a member of the fourth largest political group which is called the Green / European Free Alliance Group. It is comprised of 38 Green MEPs from across Europe and 10 MEPs from nationalist or regionalist groups who share the same vision of an Europe of the people and an Europe of the Regions as Plaid Cymru.
The European Free Alliance section of the group is comprised of two MEPs from Plaid Cymru´s sister party the Scottish National Party, 2 from Flanders, 1 from Galicia, 1 from Andalucia, 2 from the Basque Country plus Eurig and myself. This group brings together the two major issues facing us - environmental sustainability and more democracy through decentralisation.
In the Parliament itself, we cover a wide range of issues. I sit on the Employment & Social Affairs Committee, the Environment & Public Health Committee and I am also Vice-President of the Women's Rights & Equal Opportunities Committee.
Whilst my Plaid Cymru colleague is a member of the European Parliaments Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee and Culture, Youth & Sport Committee and the Petitions Committee.
In the first 6 months for Plaid Cymru in Brussels and Strasbourg we have made a good start on the task of fighting for the best for the people of Wales. More importantly, we are answerable to the people of Wales and nobody else unlike the other parties who are restricted by their party machines in London and by their Groups in the European Parliament.
The biggest single issue that has dominated politics in Wales over the past year, and a classic illustration of where a truly Welsh voice has made a difference, has been on the question of European Structural Funds - Objective 1 and 2 - and the granting of match funding from the British government - which is not money which is already allocated for projects in Wales - for Wales´ Objective 1 areas.
Objective 1 should bring in £1.2 billion of much needed aid to the most economically deprived areas of Wales. This is potentially more than double the aid that Wales has received from Europe up until now. However, unless the British government can come up with money to match the funding that comes from the EU which is in addition to the public money (as set out in the spending limits for Wales), then the benefit of Objective 1 status will not be maximised and the one shot which we have to get the Welsh economy up off its knees will have been missed.
Additionality occurs when the money made available by Europe leads to extra spending in the places for which it is intended. Non-additionality happens when Euro funds simply displaces an equivalent ammount of domestic expenditure. This is what will happen in Wales if the Government gets its way.
If Labour does not make this additional money available, two things will happen :
Firstly, the match funding comes from within Wales´existing spending limits - in practice this will mean that to make way for European match funding that other much needed schemes will have to be ditched with money earmarked, for example, for education, health, social services being redirected by the government so that it can be used for EU funded roads or trading estates. This would undermine the whole purpose of Objective 1 which is to target poverty and improving areas so that handouts will not be needed after 2006.
The only other alternative if additional match funding is not made available by the powers that be in London is that Objective 1 money goes unused. Plaid Cymru on all levels is fighting tooth and nail to prevent Labour from doing this - in the Assembly, in Westminster and in the European Parliament. The very fact that Plaid Cymru is now represented on all these levels makes us far more effective in our campaign to force the Labour government into delivering this money for Wales. Voluntary Organisations, local authorities, and so on have all played their part - it is now up to the government to do the same.
Another recent example of only Plaid Cymru in the European Parliament speaking up for Wales was had in a recent debate on the budget issue of the UK government rebate which Margaret Thatcher secured at Fontainbleau. The Welsh MEPs from the London based parties all voted to keep this rebate despite the fact that the Institute of Welsh Affairs amongst others have published conclusive proof that Wales looses out as a result of this arrangement. It was only Plaid Cymru that voted for the interests of Wales.
But, contrary to what many people think, the work of the European Parliament is not just about huge issues such as Objective 1 and the Fontainbleau Agreement, its work can and does touch on the everyday lives of each and every one of us.
For example, I have recently been arguing within the Parliament for the retention of the EU subsidy for school milk. This is an issue which affect the health of school children across Wales, and the removal of the subsidy to farmers which produce this milk would be a bitter blow to the dairy industry across Wales.
I have presented a petition signed by Welsh parents to the EU Director of Livestock Products. This petition and Plaid Cymru`s representations will now be included in a report on the future of the subsidy. If Plaid Cymru was not in the European Parliament, the voice of rural Wales would not have been heard on this issue.
School Milk subsidies also proves the point perfectly that, very often, the most important issues come from the grass roots, from the public and from outside organisations. The issue was first drawn to my attention by concerned parents and farmers from Pembrokeshire. PVC baby toys; junior doctors working hours; lifelong learning; water quality; landfill; the ozone layer are also all issues that have been debated recently.
On a visit which I took to the former Soviet Republic of Lithuania as a member of the EU-Lithuania Joint Parliamentary Committee. This little Baltic country is home to the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant.
The plant which was built by the old Soviet Union and is of the same design as Chernobyl. Since Lithuania is anxious to join the EU, aid is being provided, and pressure is being put on Lithuania to shut Ignalina. Hopefully the European Union can use its influence to get Lithuania and other east European countries to make safe and then to close down these nuclear plants to avoid another Chernobyl from happening. I spoke there about the effect on Wales if a Chernobyl style disaster was to occur again in future.
Unfortunately, because of the way that Europe is completely ignored by the British media, very often people don't realise that its decisions affect all aspects of our life in Wales. In all honesty, how many people know what the Commission does, what the Council of Ministers is and what the Parliament does?
People only get to hear about "Europe" at times of crisis - the French ban on British beef, the Commission resigning and so on. Europe is seen as something distant and irrelevant. Such misconceptions are something which we in Plaid Cymru have pledged to change by raising awareness in meeting such as this, by having information points, displays and an Euro post box for the public in every Plaid Cymru Office in Wales.
Awareness of European issues is becoming more important than ever. On the question of enlargement for example, it is estimated that the present EU could double in size over the next few years. This will have a profound effect on Wales.
First of all, despite the fact that by present EU standards Wales is a poor country, when expansion occurs, as it inevitably will, we will be comparatively well off compared to the new members from Eastern Europe.
Secondly, the question of how to ensure that the voice of nations and regions such as Wales, Scotland, Flanders, Andalucia is not further weakened once new members come in has to be addressed. The institutions of the EU were drawn up to accommodate the original 6 member states, it is already completely overloaded, and in desperate need of modernisation before further enlargement can take place. If the EU appears distant now - how much more distant and irrelevant will it be with 30 members and 500 million citizens?
Plaid Cymru is fighting with allies from all over Europe to turn this this situation into an opportunity for small nations and regions, and to make Europe genuinely accountable to its people. The Commission - the civil service of Europe needs to be reformed from top to bottom, and the Parliament - which is the democratic voice of the people of Europe - needs to develop into an institution which can hold the Commission to account and which can assert its authority.
An example of why this needs to happen is the European Parliament building itself. The European Parliament must be the only Parliament in the world which moves around and which does not have the power to decide where it should sit. Despite the fact that the Parliament works from Brussels, once a month for a week, all the MEPs, their staff, the civil servants, and Parliament staff from caterers to Parliament travel shop workers trek across Europe to the new Parliament in Strasbourg at a cost of £100 million to the tax payer. All because of a Treaty agreement with France.
Most MEPs would vote tomorrow to scrap this time consuming and ludicrously expensive nonsense but unfortunately at present we do not have the power to do this. All we can do is register our disapproval - as we did in December by signing a motion and boycotting the opening ceremony for the new Parliament building.
There is a lot to do. Europe has to gain the trust and confidence of people. Europe must clean up its act, the gravy train must be derailed and people must be involved in Europe. The European Parliament is a Parliament for Wales as much as for any other nation and we must all work together and play a full part in shaping the Europe of the future.