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First Minister’s Brussels trip reflects shift in international strategy

02 Mar 2023 5 minute read
Grand Place Brussels picture by Goi (CC0 1.0).

Luke James 

Mark Drakeford’s decision to spend St David’s Day in Brussels reflects a marked shift in the Welsh Government’s international strategy, an analysis by Nation.Cymru has found.

After travelling to Belgium by Eurostar on Tuesday, the First Minister spent the national day meeting politicians, diplomats and academics from across the continent.

Using the first of March to promote the country’s brand abroad is nothing new, with both Drakeford and his predecessor Carwyn Jones regularly spending St David’s day or the weeks around it overseas.

But there has been a clear change in the choice of destination for their visits over the last decade.

Carwyn Jones celebrated more than half of the St David’s days during his nine years as First Minister with visits to North America.

He visited the New York Stock Exchange in two consecutive years, including alongside actor Michael Sheen, in an effort to raise Wales’ profile with US investors, met members of the US Congress with a Welsh connection in Washington DC and travelled to the traditional heart of the Welsh diaspora in Pennsylvania.

Even after the EU referendum in 2016, Jones continued to prioritise building relations with North America, holding St David’s day celebrations in Washington DC and Montreal during his final two years as First Minister.

“The current political landscape around the world means relations with the US are more important than ever—economically, politically and culturally,” Jones told the Senedd in 2016.

Overseas St David’s day celebrations under Carwyn Jones

2011: Brussels
2012: Washington DC and New York
2013: Barcelona
2014: New York
2015: New York
2017: Washington DC
2018: Montreal

While Jones was far from a stranger to Brussels at other times of the year, he visited the EU capital for St David’s day celebrations just once during his time in office.

By contrast, Drakeford has now held St David’s day celebrations in Brussels in four of the five year’s he’s been First Minister. The only exception was during the peak of Covid travel restrictions in 2021.

That reflects a change in the international strategy of the Welsh Government, with its latest version published in 2020 citing Germany, France and Ireland before the US and Canada in its list of “priority international relationships”.

“The Welsh Government’s International Strategy very clearly profiles Wales as a ‘European nation’, and highlights the significance of maintaining and building Wales’ European links in trade and beyond,” Rachel Minto, a lecturer at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre specialising in EU and devolution issues, told Nation.Cymru.

“Importantly, the Welsh Government understands that continued cooperation with and within the EU is underpinned by common values which, in turn, inform shared policy goals around the environment, equality and social issues, for example.

“In that light, visits to Brussels by the First Minister at strategic moments such as St David’s Day are an obvious way to demonstrate political support for maintaining the links between Wales and the EU.”

During his latest visit this week, the First Minister gave a briefing to the European Policy Centre on his “positive, constructive and values-based approach to engaging with European institutions, nations and regions”, primarily through the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

He then headed to the European Parliament to meet three influential members from across the political spectrum: the German social democratic vice-president of the Parliament, the French left-wing chair of its regional development committee and the German conservative chair of its education and culture committee.

Overseas St David’s day celebrations under Mark Drakeford

2019: Brussels and Paris
2020: Brussels
2022: Brussels
2023: Brussels

In the evening, he met with members of the Welsh community in Brussels as well as diplomats at the annual St David’s day reception at the British embassy.

“St David’s Day is an excellent opportunity to promote Wales around the world as a place to visit, invest in and trade with,” said a Welsh Government spokesperson.

“The First Ministers’ visits show Wales is an outward-looking country, which values international cooperation and the links we have with our global partners.”

St David’s day visits haven’t always been without controversy though.

Carwyn Jones was criticised in 2015 for flying to the US from Heathrow rather than Cardiff Airport.

And last year Nation.Cymru reported how guests at the Welsh Government’s St David’s day reception attended by Drakeford were left disappointed by a lack of Welsh food because of Brexit.

The British government also refused to provide Drakeford with an official car for a visit to Brussels in 2019 as a result of the Welsh Government’s opposition to its Brexit strategy.

While this visit passed off without incident, this should only be the start of the Welsh Government’s diplomatic work, stressed Rachel Minto of Cardiff University.

“What will be of interest going forward is the quality and depth of the relationships between Wales, the EU institutions, and EU Member States and Regions,” she said.

“The strategy contains an explicit commitment to increasing Wales’ profile and presence across the continent as well as in Brussels.”

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Iago Prydderch
Iago Prydderch
1 year ago

St David’s Day is the one day of the year that celebrates being Welsh and our First Ministers prefer to escape the country. That says everything we need to know about our leaders!

Andrew Thomas
Andrew Thomas
1 year ago
Reply to  Iago Prydderch

I disagree they are rightfully trying to put Wales on the map building connections is vital if one day we wish to be a proud independent nation

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