When Europe – and Nelson Mandela – came to Wales
Twenty-five years ago this week, the eyes of Europe and the world were on Wales.
Helmut Kohl, the first Chancellor of a reunified Germany, thrashed out the future of the continent with another big beast of European politics, French President Jacques Chirac, at Cardiff City Hall.
And Nelson Mandela received a hero’s welcome to Cardiff Castle from school children waving Welsh and South African flags as he sought to rebuild his country after ending four decades of apartheid.
The European Council summit in June 1998 came on the eve of devolution, at the height of the Cool Cymru and during the construction of the new national stadium.
It promised a new era Welsh influence in Europe as part of a move towards a ‘Europe of the regions’ and the sense of optimism was helped by a special extension of pub opening hours in the capital.
For many, things could only get better. But the growing frustration at the direction of the European project among others could was also visible on the streets of Cardiff.
“It is, if you like, the high tide mark of our relations with Europe,” said Jon Owen Jones, the former Wales Office minister who petitioned the UK Government to bring the European Council to Cardiff.
“Under the new Labour government, Britain took an increasingly important role in leading and directing EU affairs and establishing strong cooperation.”
The Council was the closing act of the UK’s six month presidency of the European Union and a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the UK’s membership of the European community.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, who remained popular following his landslide election victory a year earlier, used his political capital to reset relations with the EU following decades of conflict under consecutive Conservative governments.
“The long years in which it was always Britain in disagreement with everyone else are over,” he promised in Cardiff.
The summit also helped Wales overcome its geographic and political status as a peripheral ‘region’ of the EU.
“It raised the profile of Wales enormously,” Wayne David MP, who was then leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament, told Nation.Cymru. “It put Wales on the European map.”
“To have the whole European Union focusing on Cardiff for a major European Council was symbolic. At that time, there was a movement towards a Europe of the regions and small nations.
“It was a hugely significant time for Wales’ development as a nation. It was almost like the whole of Europe was recognising Wales for the first time.”
That was certainly the case when Kohl, attending his final European Council, discovered the existence of the Welsh language during a performance by a women’s choir from north Wales at the summit dinner.
“There was also praise from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Austrian counterpart, who admitted they hadn’t known Wales had its own language but now felt they really must learn it,” reported the North Wales Weekly News.
Although he will have been less impressed with the summit organiser’s knowledge of Germany after it was discovered that Deutschland was spelled incorrectly on a banner hung outside City Hall.
Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, was also pleasantly surprised by his hosts’ cultural diversity after finding one of the local police officers on his security detail had roots in his own home region.
“The delegation were very happy,” said PC Ray Zavaglia after posing for a photo with Prodi outside the Marriot Hotel which housed many of the leaders. “Events like this give Wales a good image.”
The European visitors were though upstaged on the second day of the summit by the arrival of South African President Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was officially in Cardiff to push for a trade deal with the EU, which was eventually signed the following year, on the sidelines of the summit but inevitably stole the show.
Parents passed their children over the security barrier for a hug from Mandela as he spent 20 minutes greeting the 5,000 strong crowd which had gathered outside his Park Hotel to greet him.
He also received the freedom of the city at a moving ceremony at Cardiff Castle, during which he thanked Wales for its support during the struggle against apartheid.
“When the call for the international isolation of apartheid went out to the world, the people of Wales responded magnificently,” said Mandela.
“We knew that the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement spoke for a people who cared for our freedom as their own.”
Dr Elin Royles, who was on the fringes of the summit as a BBC trainee and is now a senior lecturer at Aberystwyth University’s department of international politics, remembers the excitement around the events.
“That was just so historic,” she said of Mandela’s visit during the summit. “In a way the coincidence of them both gave you the sense that things are changing, Wales was being recognised.”
“It coincided with the preparations for devolution and it kind of added a buzz of what devolution would be about and a whole range of expectations about devolution.
“This was still the period of the idea of the Europe of the regions, that we would see greater power held by regions in the EU, including Wales.
“Those aspirations for European regions quickly dissipated into the noughties. But at the time it seemed Wales would be able to reap the potential of having a voice in Europe and being better represented in the European Union.”
While hope was in the air for many, others arrived in Cardiff to express frustration with the EU.
On the eve of the summit, 5,000 people took part in a trade union demonstration for action over unemployment and 8,000 farmers marched through Cardiff to demand an end to the export ban on British beef imposed following the BSE epidemic.
Welsh farmers also made their point by using tractors to blockade the exit to Fishguard harbour.
The ‘family photo’ of EU leaders on the steps of the National Museum was taken against a chorus of boos, giving the then Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, a taste of the Euroscepticism that would later dominate his time as European Commission President.
Protesters also held an alternative summit at Cardiff’s since-demolished Central Hotel.
Blaenau Gwent MP Llew Smith, who was among the event’s organisers, said the official talks “didn’t respond to the big issues which are important in this community like unemployment and bad housing.”
“People are going to become increasingly critical of the European Union,” he told the Gwent Gazette.
The issues which saw Nigel Farage elected as one of UKIP’s first MEPs a year later were all discussed in Cardiff.
Top of the summit’s agenda was the creation of the Euro.
Eleven of the 14 member states had signed-up to use it a month earlier and Commission President Jacques Santer said it was a question of when, not if, Britain would adopt the single currency.
In Cardiff, Chirac predicted the UK would join within four years. A claim UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook did little to dispel when he said: “There is a limit to how long you can sit on the sidelines.”
Newspaper reports from the summit that Blair had given his “warmest embrace so far” of the Euro resulted in the Sun newspaper, which had backed his election only a year before, asking of the Prime Minister: “Is this the most dangerous man in Britain.”
Enlargement of the EU to a dozen more countries was discussed too. That included plans to “prepare Turkey for membership”, which the Leave campaign would resurrect in the 2016 referendum.
EU leaders weren’t oblivious to growing Euroscepticism.
The Cardiff summit resulted in a commitment to rebalance power between national governments and EU institutions as part of a move towards a “people’s Europe.”
The President of the European Parliament announced a shake-up of the pay and expenses regime for Euro MPs in a bid to avoid future scandals.
The UK Government made employment a central theme of the summit and its presidency of the EU – although there were differences over Blair’s emphasis on job creation through “less bureaucratic” regulation rather than directive investment.
And the summit saw the launch of Europe Direct, a service allowing citizens to get in touch directly with the European institutions, which exists to this day.
“I believe that the Cardiff European Council marked a solid step forward towards a more effective and better accepted European Union,” Blair told the Commons following the summit.
“We agreed, without rows or drama, on a series of substantive points to equip our countries and peoples better for the future.”
Conservative leader William Hague said though that the Cardiff summit served only to teach the following EU Presidency how not to organise a summit.
While cabinet minutes show the UK Government said the integration of environmental policies into all EU programmes was one of the key successes of its presidency, Friends of the Earth said the Cardiff summit had been “not much greener than a multi-storey car park.”
And the improved relations built in Cardiff would shortly be put under renewed stress.
In Cardiff, Blair and Chirac stood together at the centre of the “family photo”. But the emerging entente cordiale broke down when Chirac refused to support the invasion of Iraq.
The Cardiff summit brings back feelings of “loss, frustration, anger and a missed opportunity” for some, like Jon Owen Jones, who stood for pro-EU Change UK party in the European elections of 2019.
“I can’t see us being able to undo Brexit in the near future and that’s a matter of great regret,” he said.
For those who supported the Leave campaign in 2016, the anniversary of the summit will underline just how far and how fast they succeeded in changing the UK’s and Wales’ relationship with the EU.
“Yes, the summit is of a very different age,” said Dr Elin Royles. But she added: “It’s very interesting in this post Brexit period to see Wales not following the UK Government approach and still being a pro-European government.”
Whatever your perspective on the EU, those two days in which Cardiff became the centre of Europe will come to be seen as a “a significant milestone” in our history, believes Wayne David MP.
“I look back on it as a wonderful celebration of a newly emerging Wales.”
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