Brexit Debate in Cornwall Anti-EU Sentiment Despite EU Subsidies

The British holiday paradise of Cornwall has received hundreds of millions of euros from the EU. Despite these subsidies, many here favor Brexit. Why?

A poster from the Leave campaign in the Cornish countryside

A poster from the Leave campaign in the Cornish countryside

By  in Cornwall (Text and Photos)

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There she goes, the pride of Cornish cuisine -- a mixture of beef, potatoes, swedes (a type of turnip) and onions. After being packed by hand, the light yellow meat pies are whisked along on a blue conveyor belt. With a bit of imagination, you can recognize here the stars on the EU flag.

In St Just, in the far west of Cornwall, the Warrens Bakery chain has a daily output of 15,000 Cornish pasties, the region's best-known speciality. Jason Jobling is the director of the chain and the head of the Cornish Pasty Association (CPA), which has recently issued a statement on the Brexit referendum: "The CPA supports Britain remaining in the EU."

The decision was a "no-brainer," says Jobling in his office next to the production hall. His association has fought for years for the Cornish pasty to receive Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in the EU. Since 2011, Cornish pasties -- which can only be sold under this name if they are produced in Cornwall -- have enjoyed an enormous competitive advantage. "Now that we got it, we're going to look after it," says Jobling.

Cornwall has received hundreds of millions of euros from the EU, yet many still favor Brexit.

With its beaches, hedges and manors, the real Cornwall is nearly as picturesque as the film adaptations of Rosamunde Pilcher novels that are shown on German television. But the region is not prosperous. Because the strength of its economy is far below the EU average, money from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has been flowing into Cornwall for more than 20 years.

Map data © OpenStreetMap-participants (ODbL)

Between 2007 and 2013 alone, the region received 654 million euros (512 million pounds) in subsidies, with an additional 604 million euros planned by 2020. Cornwall received start-up incubators, a new university campus and a broadband internet connection that is the envy of this German visitor. Moreover, thanks to European support, the Cornish have been recognized as a minority that needs protection, along with their language.

But it hasn't done the EU much good. According to opinion polls, even in the Cornwall subsidy paradise a majority will vote on June 23 in favor of leaving the EU. Even the most prominent Brexit champion, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, put in an appearance at Cornwall in which he raised -- of all things -- an EU-protected delicacy into the air and proclaimed: "Pasty for Brexit!"

Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson in Cornwall

Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson in Cornwall

Johnson, it would seem, hadn't looked too deeply into local realities.

But what about the people of Cornwall? Why does the EU enjoy so little popularity in the region, despite all the money Brussels spends there?

Many of the answers to this question have to do with power. Some locals see the EU as all-powerful, while others find it nearly irrelevant. Neither of these views, however, holds that EU membership is worthy of the same kind of protection as the bakers' coveted PGI status.

Anxiety over the future in Britain's poorhouse -- Sheila Mitchell wants her country back

For Sheila Mitchell, 73, the EU means little more than foreign domination. On a recent Wednesday morning, she is standing with her husband Les and other pro-Brexit campaigners behind an information table in the port city of Falmouth. A retired nurse, Mitchell says that she's here because of her grandchildren -- and that she fears for their future: "Our sovereignty is important. Our queen is important."

She is particularly concerned about immigration, which she says has become uncontrollable due to EU membership. "We can't take them all," she says. "This is a small country and we want it back!" So many young men are coming from Syria, she says, and asks: "Why don't they put on a uniform and fight?"

When told that they are fleeing the bombs of a dictator, one of the Brexit supporters actually says that the EU is also a dictatorship.

A number of passersby stop to pick up flyers. Opinion polls show that many people feel poorly informed, despite the upcoming referendum. But not everyone fits this mold. While Sheila's fellow activist John Reeds is distributing flyers, he is approached by a young man with long hair and a nose ring. The man asks Reeds if he knows how much money the EU has pumped into Cornwall. "You live in the poorest part of the country. Think about it!"

"He's got a point there," says Reeds after the man is gone. Then, though, comes the "but" that will be heard over and over again in the coming days: The sum was anyway transferred to Brussels in the form of membership contributions. "It's our money," is the conclusion.

How absurd are EU subsidies?

The British have always viewed the EU with greater skepticism than many continental Europeans. The suspicion that EU membership is in reality a raw deal was encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher's famous remark: "I want my money back." Although the Iron Lady subsequently managed to negotiate a generous discount for British EU contributions, the mistrust remains -- even in a recipient region like Cornwall.

Every week, the UK transfers 350 million pounds to Brussels, according to the message emblazoned on the side of a Leave campaign bus, whose first stop brought Boris Johnson to Cornwall. But this figure does not take into account either the UK rebate of nearly 100 million pounds or the subsidies that the British receive. Indeed, even the head of the British Statistical Office has characterized this calculation as "potentially misleading."

There is no doubt that Cornwall comes out financially ahead with the EU. The other question, though, is what benefits the subsidies provide.

When auditors recently examined the grant money flowing into the region, they arrived at a disappointing conclusion: The program has fallen short of all of its benchmarks. Instead of creating over 15,000 jobs, it has only managed around 5,000; and instead of generating 500 million pounds in investments from the private sector, it only has realized just under 80 million pounds. Where jobs were created, they cost more than comparable jobs in the public sector. This was "poor value for money," as the authors wrote.

Such criticism is not uncommon. Some economists even say that EU subsidies are so inefficient that they should be eliminated altogether.

But aside from incompetent Brussels bureaucrats there is another explanation for the dashed hopes in Cornwall. The program goals were established before the aftermath of the US financial crisis had plunged the British economy into the deepest recession of the postwar period.

Tom Teagle's company has received 190,000 pounds -- but he doesn't find the EU so important

Tom Teagle knows only too well that Cornwall's well-being does not solely depend upon the EU. Not far from the Cornwall county town Truro, his family has been producing agricultural machines for nearly 80 years. At the location where Teagle's grandfather once began with simple horse-drawn tipping carts, his grandson today leads the way through a large network of production halls. At the end of the tour, he shows his guests into a building in which two men are hard at work with a crackling welding machine. This is where the up to eight-meter-long Titan manure spreader is manufactured.

It is, in a sense, Teagle's European building. The structure was built with nearly 150,000 pounds in EU regional development funds, and the firm received an additional 40,000 pounds to create a webpage in eight different languages. Teagle says the application process for funding "was very complicated." On the other hand, he admits: "I expect it to be complicated if someone gives me money."

Teagle is a calm, reflective man. "We are very grateful for the EU support that we have received," he says, but notes that this is not nearly as important as global trends like China's appetite for dairy products, the fluctuating exchange rate of the pound and the euro, and the conflict in Ukraine, a country that used to be the company's third-largest market. "These are really the levers that in recent years have created or undermined jobs in the Teagle business," he says.

His firm, he adds, could also survive outside the EU. But he doesn't harbor a great deal of sympathy for Brexit supporters, in part because they are led by the political clown Johnson. "Does that make me want to think that it's a serious campaign?" he asks.

Roger Jenkin has received 150,000 pounds -- and still favors Brexit

The two young calves are thirsty and still wet behind the ears. One was born yesterday, the other today. Roger Jenkin is laboriously trying to teach them how to feed from a plastic feeder with rubber teats that provide a flow of warm milk. "Normally my daughter does this," the 54-year-old says apologetically.

The Jenkins operate a dairy farm with 600 cows on the Lizard Peninsula in southern Cornwall. It is a remote, bucolic location that is only accessible via narrow country lanes. But just like on German farms, this rural bliss has been threatened ever since the EU abolished its milk quota and prices went into freefall.

"We're losing about 5,000 pounds a month," says Jenkin. His daughter and son would like to take over the farm, "but they would like to make some money from it."

Jenkin doesn't hold Brussels responsible for the drop in prices, but rather the overproduction of individual countries. The family has expanded the farm with some 150,000 pounds in EU funding, yet Jenkin still favors Brexit. "I just feel that we're paying too much in and not getting enough back," he says.

But what will happen to the EU subsidies that British farmers have, at least until now, received for their milk? Jenkin believes that they can be replaced. Following a Brexit, he is convinced that UK customers would be happy to pay a few pennies more for domestic milk. "They are obviously more British-minded than European so they would want to buy from their country."

Paul Trebilcock mistrusts the EU -- but is even more wary of his own government

Ironically, it is ultimately a representative of the Cornish fishermen who calls into question such optimistic assumptions about Brexit, despite the fact that this traditional sector has voiced more frustration with the EU than any other industry in Cornwall.

"The heart cries get out," Paul Trebilcock says about the EU as he looks at the port of Newlyn outside his office window. Just outside of the six-mile zone reserved for the local fishery, French ships regularly sail into view. They pull tons of haddock out of the water while British fishermen can do nothing but look on.

The waters off Cornwall belong to a zone in which EU fishing quotas have accorded France two-thirds of the haddock catch. The British are only allowed to pull in around 10 percent.

"That fosters some very strong anti-EU feelings," says Trebilcock, who used to work as a fisherman himself. Today, he is the head of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation and well-versed in protests against EU regulations. When George Eustice, the Cornish-born minister of state for farming, food and marine environment, recently agreed in Brussels to a fishing ban for a species of ray, Trebilcock wrote to him that this was "almost the epitome of bad governance," and contended that it destroyed every remaining shred of trust in the European Commission.

In personal interviews, the 40-year-old sounds more moderate. Eustice merely negotiated poorly, he says, just as his predecessors apparently did. Shortly before Britain joined the EU in 1973, France and the other founding members laid the foundations for the fisheries policy -- to the detriment of the UK, as many Britons believe.

Now, even fisheries minister Eustice is advocating Brexit as a way out. "He seems to think that things are black or white," quips Trebilcock. But British fishermen also benefit from the EU regulations. "We're catching our hake in Irish waters and actually selling it in Spain," says the fishing industry representative. Even the quotas for haddock appear in a different light if you look beyond the borders of the Cornwall district. All in all, Britain enjoys two-thirds of the quota while France only catches 15 percent.

No matter how unfair and inefficient the EU bureaucracy may be in many respects, Trebilcock doubts whether the alternative for fishermen would be better. Although Brexit supporters insist that EU subsidies would be replaced by domestic funding after leaving the Union, the government has hardly made any concrete commitments thus far -- neither for the protection of Cornish pasties, nor for fishing regulations after a Brexit.

Either way, the British would have to negotiate trade agreements with neighboring countries after exiting the EU and Trebilcock is afraid that his industry is fairly low on the agenda: "Although fishing is important in the context of Cornwall, in the context of the UK, it isn't," he argues.

In Newlyn many fishermen are likely to follow their hearts on June 23. But some might also follow their noses. A number of years ago, they needed a new ice maker to keep the daily catch fresh. In the harbor, they now have a colossal machine that produces 100 tons of ice flakes a day. Like so many other things in the region, it was financed with support from the EU.

Editing: Jule Lutteroth

Infographics: Aida Marquez Gonzalez

Lesen Sie auch / More on Brexit:

Leitartikel von DER SPIEGEL und SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wer klug ist, bleibt

English Editorial: It's smarter to stay

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


Discuss this issue with other readers!
31 total posts
Show all comments
Page 1 06/11/2016
1. Brussels
Unfortunately the whole premise of this article is based on a complete misunderstanding. Your correspondent has fallen hook, line and sinker for Brussels propaganda. Cornwall has most definitely not received "millions of Euros in EU aid". Britain, like Germany, is one of very few net contributors to the EU budget. For every two Pounds of our taxpayer's hard earned money we hand over to Brussels we receive only one Pound back. All of the money received by Cornwall is therefore OUR OWN money it is most definitely NOT the EU's. If we were not a member, we, rather than Brussels, could choose on what we spend the £5bn that currently has to go to Brussels only to be returned and spent as Brussels dictates. Of rather more importance, we would have our entire net contribution, an additional £10bn per year, available to spend in the UK. Currently this vast sum is money that our taxpayers never see again. The wise people of Cornwall understand this only too well and would prefer decisions of all kinds to be made by politicians that they have elected and could throw out, rather than unelected Eurocrats in Brussels. It is reasons such as this that Brexit may well prevail on the 23rd June
granathos 06/11/2016
2. specific sensitiveness
As we already know the Brexeteers are oldies but not goldies. PresumingIy the population in the South-West is overaged. Maybe the vulnerability to conquests - Spaniards, French, Germans - generated a specific sensitiveness among the coastal population of SW-GB.
fred.feuerstein 06/11/2016
wenn schon Englisch, dann British English, please ! ("favor", etc)... wir sind hier naemlich in Europe.
Inglenda2 06/11/2016
4. Who are the British? Certainly not the government!
England is only one part of Britain, but is often mistakenly referred to, when continental Europeans talk about the United Kingdom. Further more, due to migration from Commonwealth and European countries, more than one third of the population of England are in fact not people of native origin. This causes much of the social unrest within the country. The sort of Englishman/woman, who were once ready to fight and die for their country, or the freedom of Europe, are either themselves now dead, or have chosen to move to other countries. Of these, thousands now live n the European continent, where, (other than the mad football fans), they usually live in peace and harmony with the local population. A huge number of these pro-European Britons, will have no chance to vote in the comming referendum which is possibly the biggest political scandal of this century!
wyjj 06/11/2016
5. brexit
I am a brit and was not going to vote exit, but following threats from Germany and the Eu, I like many of us will vote exit. You do not treat friends in this way. I considered Germans to be our friends and allies and I believe ordinary people still are our friends. But these statements saying that the uk will have no access to the European markets. Forcing the german people and European people, sovereign countries to not sell us goods and services and risk peoples jobs and security due to a large loss of trade is the action of a child.
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