Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion
Last month, the Irish Government reopened their Consulate-General in Cardiff, a decision that was rightly heralded as an excellent development for Wales.
Indeed, the reopening of the Consulate in the capital following a ten-year leave of absence offers a valuable opportunity to strengthen the cultural, economic, and social ties that have woven the histories of our two nations together for centuries.
The reopening might also provide some impetus to attract other nations to follow Ireland’s lead and develop their diplomatic presence in Wales. Given that we live in such turbulent times, with Brexit uncertainty lingering into the foreseeable future, this is an endeavour worthy of serious and sustained effort.
After all, Wales is no stranger to the diplomatic sphere. In the Middle Ages, France’s efforts to increase their influence on the island of Britain were often manifested in diplomatic overtures to Welsh leaders. Such efforts continued well beyond the death of Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf in 1282. Famously, Owain Glyndŵr sent diplomats to the French court, and in his Pennal Letter in 1406, sought to strengthen the cause of Welsh independence by aligning himself with the French King, Charles VI.
Although his efforts to charm the French were ultimately unsuccessful (Owain did not receive a response to the Pennal Letter), they nevertheless serve as useful reminders that there is a precedent – albeit historic – to the idea of Wales nurturing its own diplomatic connections.
Fortunately, and unlike the exertions of Owain Glyndŵr, any new effort to develop Wales’s diplomatic connections will have strong foundations to build upon. The Welsh Government already has offices across the world, and has more recently appointed Eluned Morgan AM as a Minister with responsibility for International Relations.
Furthermore, there is already a diplomatic presence in Wales, in the form of an extensive network of Honorary Consuls, constituted as the Consular Association in Wales, which was formed over a century ago. We urgently need to develop more formal links with this network, whilst also seeking to add more nations to its list of members.
Honorary Consuls differ from Ambassadors in that they are not usually employed by their respective nations – even though they undertake quite a lot of work on their behalf – but are honorary appointments under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and according to which all consuls operate.
Their role includes cooperating closely with the embassies to help to coordinate any official visits to Wales, as well as facilitating business delegations to their relevant countries – simply put, as a collective Honorary Consuls help bring the best of the world to Wales, as well as the best of Wales to the world.
While embassy personnel tend to change every three to five years, consuls provide much-needed continuity, their longer terms allowing for deep and long-lasting relationships with civic, political, and business leaders to be forged.
While the work of Honorary Consuls is vital for diplomatic relations, it would be unrealistic – and grossly unfair – to expect them to undertake the full range of duties associated with staffed diplomatic missions.
As such, we need to encourage governments from across the world to set up Consulates-General in Wales, as Ireland has done, with employed personnel tasked with developing close links between their countries and Wales.
There are plenty of examples that we could follow. We could look to countries such as Catalonia and Québec, who have worked proactively to encourage governments to establish a presence in their respective capitals; Barcelona hosts thirty-eight Consulates-General and Consulates, while Montréal has forty-two.
The Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, known as Diplocat, offers a useful model for Wales’s efforts overseas – a public-private consortium, formed by representatives from different Catalan authorities and organisations, including chambers of commerce and universities. Through active engagement with the international community, Barcelona has established itself as an international hub for businesses and organisations.
Of a slightly different focus, the Québec Government’s international policy has at its heart a desire to attract international organisations, diplomatic and consular offices, and international students and research conferences to Québec.
This has led to several international organisations establishing themselves in Montréal – including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
An important first step for Wales’s re-entry into the diplomatic world would be the formalisation of the relationship between the Welsh Government and our existing Honorary Consuls. We could then look to build on this by enticing larger diplomatic missions to be established, and to coordinate with Wales’s existing overseas officers so as to put into action an international strategy for Wales that focuses on certain key objectives.
These could include protection and promotion of minority languages, perhaps, or promoting the incredible potential we have in the realms of renewable energy technology and research, and the benefits that their development would deliver for the world, as well as for Wales.
Of course, for the moment it cannot be denied that the UK Government has a role to play too. In Québec, the Government of Québec and the Government of Canada work together to establish favourable conditions for hosting the most important international organizations, and in so doing further Québec’s international ambitions.
The UK’s obsession with London needs to end. The reopening of the Irish Consulate-General in Cardiff offers a chance for Wales to take a step towards reintroducing itself to the world – as long as we embrace the opportunity.