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Diplomatic Representation in Wales

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered attracting diplomatic representation to Wales.

I am delighted to have secured this debate, which is of huge interest to me, as I am sure it is to any hon. Member from Wales. This matter has gained in importance in recent times, thanks in part to the turbulent situation in which we find ourselves—a political context that has made Wales’s place in the world more uncertain than ever. However, the development that triggered—or, dare I say it, inspired—the application for the debate was the decision earlier this year of the Irish Government to reopen their consulate general in Cardiff, which was rightly heralded at the time as a promising development for Wales.

The reopening of the consulate, following a 10-year leave of absence, offers a valuable opportunity to strengthen the cultural, economic and social ties that have woven together the histories of our two nations for centuries. It may also provide some impetus to 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 endeavour is worthy of serious and sustained effort. The question before us is how we build upon this and encourage more Governments to develop their presence in Wales, to deepen social and cultural links and to encourage companies from across the world to invest in Wales.

After all, Wales is no stranger to the diplomatic sphere; indeed, in the middle ages, France’s efforts to increase its 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, perhaps exemplified most famously by Owain Glyndŵr, who sent diplomats to the French court and who, in his Pennal letter of 1406, sought to strengthen the cause of Welsh independence by aligning himself with the French king, Charles VI, on the pressing matter of the papacy. Although his efforts to charm the French were ultimately unsuccessful—indeed, I do not think he ever received a reply from the French king—they nevertheless serve as useful reminders that there is precedent, albeit historic, for the idea of Wales nurturing its own diplomatic connections, and of doing so for a higher purpose; for in the Pennal letter, Glyndŵr set out his plans for establishing a Welsh Church and two Welsh universities—an enlightened vision of a prosperous and autonomous Wales.

Fortunately, and unlike the exertions of Owain Glyndŵr, any new effort to develop Wales’s diplomatic links will have strong foundations to build on. The Welsh Government already have offices across the world, from Belgium and France to Japan and the United States, and recently appointed Eluned Morgan AM as a Minister with some responsibility for international relations. This can be seen as part of a wider trend that in recent years has seen stateless nations increasingly becoming important actors in diplomacy—or perhaps paradiplomacy, the term more usually applied to the diplomatic capacity of sub-state Governments.

Without doubt, EU membership has exposed Wales to opportunities to increase its international standing, through such institutions as the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions and the Welsh Government’s office in Brussels. However, with our relationship with the rest of Europe perhaps more uncertain than ever, we must now look to other ways of strengthening these international relationships. One way of doing so would be by encouraging greater foreign diplomatic representation in Wales itself.

There is currently an extensive network of honorary consuls in Wales, which is organised as the Consular Association in Wales, which was formed over 100 years ago and whose current president, Mr Michael Rye, has set a sterling example as a champion of promoting consular representation to Wales. By way of background, honorary consuls differ from ambassadors, in that they are not usually employed by their respective nations, even though they do undertake quite a lot of work on their behalf, but are more honorary appointments under the terms of the Vienna convention on consular relations. Their role is broad-ranging, encompassing such tasks as co-operating closely with embassies to co-ordinate official visits to Wales; providing background and contextual briefings to enable closer bilateral relationships to be formed; and assisting nationals of their country who require aid, such as in cases of accident, illness, injury or the loss of personal travel documents. They also serve an important role in validating those same travel documents.

I am very interested in what my hon. Friend says and greatly appreciate that he has been able to secure the debate. Does he agree that any means of strengthening the contact between Wales and Argentina should be welcomed, particularly given the ongoing diplomatic quandary of finding a way of transporting Eisteddfod chairs from Y Wladfa back to Wales? It could also facilitate visits between Wales and the Welsh community in Patagonia.

I thank my right hon. Friend—this is the first occasion I have had to greet her as such—for that important point. It is not always well known, but Patagonia, in southern Argentina, and Wales share a very close history. People can be found there called González-Jones, who speak both Spanish and Welsh, which is a pretty unique situation. There are also shared cultural links, most notably with the matter of the Eisteddfod, and if we were to have closer diplomatic links we might be able to facilitate the transportation of those important Eisteddfod chairs back to the homeland.

While embassy personnel tend to change every three to five years, honorary consuls have their accreditation renewed every three to five years, unless they retire or if their respective country changes its attitude to the particular individual. In that sense, consuls can provide much-needed continuity, with their longer terms allowing for deep and long-lasting relationships with civic, political and business leaders to be forged, regardless of any political turmoil or changes. 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 their work 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.

For this reason, we should be enticing Governments to set up consulates general in Wales, as Ireland has done, with paid personnel tasked with developing ever-closer links between Wales and the rest of the world. The benefits of doing so are not solely cultural and social. Stronger diplomatic representation could help boost inward investment, the rate of which has been steadily reducing in recent years, with Wales attracting 57 inward investment projects in 2017-18, compared with 85 in 2016-17. No data is yet available for 2018-19.

The development of a thriving international quarter in Cardiff, with consulates general from all over the world, underpinned by an even broader network of honorary consuls, could offer a substantial boost to the Welsh economy. Before coming to this place, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) used to do a lot of work with the rural development board of Wales, as well as the Welsh Development Agency, which in some form acted with quasi-diplomatic status in attracting those closer links with companies from across the world and was very successful in bringing companies from as far afield as Japan and America to locate themselves in Wales. So there is economic potential in this endeavour.

There are many examples that we could follow. We could look to countries such as Catalonia, Quebec and the Basque country, which have all worked proactively in recent years to encourage Governments to establish a presence in their capital cities. The Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, known as Diplocat, offers a useful model for Wales’s efforts overseas, and perhaps a potential strategy for all those overseas offices that the Welsh Government have opened.

Diplocat is 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. Barcelona has 38 consulates general and consulates, while Bilbao, in the Basque country, has seven. Montreal has 42. The UK Government have an office in all those cities, so why not start our efforts to reintroduce Wales to the world by encouraging those nations to replicate Ireland’s example by opening an office in Cardiff?

With a slightly different focus from the strategy pursued by Barcelona and the Catalan authorities, the Quebec 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 Quebec. That has in recent years led to several international organisations establishing themselves in Montreal, most importantly, perhaps, the International Civil Aviation Organisation—a United Nations specialised agency that works to make the civil aviation sector safe and efficient worldwide and to ensure that the sector develops in a more economically and environmentally sustainable manner. Other major international organisations located in Quebec include the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the International Air Transport Association, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Institut de la Francophonie pour le développement durable—apologies for my pronunciation.

In Wales, the onus would of course fall, to some extent at least, on the Welsh Government, who I believe should be sending frequent delegations around the world to establish closer links with businesses and international organisations. The honorary consuls whom we already have in Wales are ideally placed to facilitate the process. However, I fear that the Welsh Government have still to realise the true potential of the Consular Association in Wales to strengthen cultural, economic and social connections around the world.

Therefore, an important first step for Wales’s re-entry into the diplomatic theatre would be the formalisation of the relationship between the Welsh Government and our existing honorary consuls. Only then can we look to build on that by enticing larger diplomatic missions to establish themselves, and to co-ordinate with Wales’s existing overseas officers to put into action an international strategy for Wales that focuses, perhaps, on certain key objectives or themes. Those could include becoming global leaders in the protection of minority languages, for example, or promoting the incredible potential that we have in the realms of renewable energy technology and research and the benefits that their development would deliver for the entire world as well as for Wales.

Of course, it cannot be denied that the UK Government have a role to play, too. In Quebec, we have a fine example. The Government of Quebec and the Government of Canada work closely together to establish favourable conditions for hosting in Montreal some of the most important international organisations. Might there be an opportunity, I wonder, for the UK Government to look to offer more opportunities for the Welsh Government to co-locate their overseas offices with those of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—I know that already happens to some extent—and likewise to facilitate diplomatic delegations from London to Cardiff, perhaps by raising the prospect of shared office spaces or hubs, or even just trade delegations, which could come from time to time to meet representatives of Welsh industries and businesses at first hand?

The Irish consulate general is a first step towards developing a more visible international presence in Wales, but that will require putting aside old-fashioned notions of diplomacy and will require the realisation that in an era of multi-track diplomacy and para-diplomacy, all levels of Government, as well as businesses, universities, civic organisations and non-governmental organisations, have a role to play and must be involved.

My only ask today is whether the Minister will consider working with the Welsh Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to encourage more Governments to open consulates in Wales, so as to boost Wales’s international presence. I reiterate that the Consular Association in Wales seems to me a natural starting point. Its knowledge and connections can be harnessed to revolutionise the way that Wales is seen by the rest of the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing the debate. I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions and particularly for the trip that we had through the diplomatic history of Wales in the medieval period, which certainly helped to expand my knowledge.

Attracting diplomatic representation to Wales is an important issue. I particularly welcome, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion did, the recent announcement of the Republic of Ireland reopening its consulate in Cardiff. That is a step to building closer relationships—particularly given the key trade routes between Holyhead and Fishguard—with the Irish Republic.

It is important that we take this opportunity to pay tribute to the network of more than 20 honorary consuls in Wales, who work tirelessly to strengthen, build and maintain our relationships with the rest of the world. Those include honorary consuls from our more traditional European partners, such as Italy, Germany and France, but the network has recently expanded to include countries such as Lesotho and Tunisia. Further expansion of the network is a matter for the respective countries, based on their individual national interests, but I am sure that Argentina will have heard the passionate plea for a representative in Cardiff, given the strong links with Patagonia. The cultural traditions are important as well. This is not just about the economy and, shall we say, hard power; it is also about some of the great cultural links between the nations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has already spoken to the new chair of the Consular Association in Wales about how the UK Government can work closely with the honorary consul network in Wales in the future. In addition, I have met the Jordanian ambassador at the Wales Office to have a conversation about how links could be strengthened and improved.

Ultimately, attracting greater diplomatic representation is about forging greater links between Wales, as a strong nation within the United Kingdom, and countries around the world. It is critical that we capitalise on the opportunities that EU exit presents us with in this regard. Of course we want to maintain our strong links with our European partners. The issue of the EU’s presence in the UK after exit day is a matter for discussion and agreement between the UK Government and the EU. I would like to assure hon. Members that those discussions are ongoing, particularly in relation to what presence it may have in Wales in the future.

I have been remiss: I do not believe that I have welcomed the Minister to his position in the Wales Office, but I do so heartily now. On the matter of a European presence in Wales post Brexit, does the Minister agree that one idea that European nations might think of looking at is co-location? I know that they do that in other countries across the world. What comes to mind is New Zealand, where different European nations share buildings to reduce costs. Does the Minister think that European nations might do well to look at that as a possible idea?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention. Of course countries can sensibly look at how they can work together, either to reduce costs or to provide better opportunities. I remember a visit to Reykjavík, where the same building houses both the British and the German embassies. They have separate parts of the building; there is a clear divide, but that has brought opportunities for closer working—better opportunities—when we are arguing, probably, on the same types of issue. At the same time, we maintain a distinct and separate presence that is easily recognisable to those who visit. Certainly we would be only too happy to talk with countries, if they wanted to look at this in Cardiff, about how it could be supported and what opportunities would be available to them. Let us not forget that it does not necessarily have to be Cardiff. There are other great towns and cities in Wales where they may look to have or may have economic interests, particularly in the north of Wales, that they need to service and where they need to provide support to their citizens.

We want Wales, all parts of the UK, and the UK as a whole to be open and outward looking, building new relationships in Europe and beyond. As foreign affairs are a reserved matter, the Government represent the interests of the whole United Kingdom, and we will continue to deliver for Wales and all parts of the UK overseas.

We believe that Wales approaches EU exit from a position of strength and continues to be an attractive location for business and investment. Last year, more than 3,000 jobs came to Wales through foreign direct investment, from 57 projects. The Office of the Secretary of State for Wales will continue to work closely with the Department for International Trade to support that work and attract new opportunities.

Welsh businesses continue to export their products across the globe. I was pleased to note that the value of Welsh exports for the year ending March 2019 was up £1.2 billion over the previous year, with growth in exports to EU and non-EU countries alike. Our exporting success is testament to our great exporting businesses. I am thinking of businesses such as Babi Pur, based in Gwynedd, which has grown to be one of the leading retailers in fair trade and organic children’s products, selling all over the world—it was ably promoted to me by the two local Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), when I met them to discuss the North Wales growth deal—and Llanllyr Source, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, selling spring water globally.

Alongside the strong economic links with other countries, it is important that we recognise the cultural ones. I welcome plans by the Thai embassy to hold the first Thai festival in Wales next month to help to raise awareness of the links that exist between Thailand and Wales. We should be clear that organising events with another nation to promote the country does not automatically mean organising events in London; that can happen across the rest of our United Kingdom as well. I am particularly pleased that the Thai embassy has decided to hold this event in Cardiff.

The Secretary of State for Wales has regular meetings with overseas diplomats, to discuss opportunities to strengthen the links between Wales and countries across the globe. He also promotes Wales abroad and has done so recently in Hong Kong, Japan, the US, Qatar and elsewhere. These trade missions are vital in ensuring that our long-term aspirations for the Welsh economy are secured. He has also worked extensively with the Department for International Trade to launch the Wales portfolio at MIPIM—le marché international des professionnels de l’immobilier—the world’s largest property and investment event, in March. The six projects in the portfolio, from across Wales, showcase our potential.

In response to the specific query that was made, we want to continue working closely with the Welsh Government in marketing Wales to the world. The Secretary of State has a positive relationship with both the Welsh Minister for Economy and Transport, and the deputy Minister with responsibility for international relations in the Welsh Government, and has invited them to join him on trade missions in order to demonstrate a joined-up approach to our prospective partners.

Businesses in Wales rightly have access to support in 108 markets globally through the Department for International Trade. I would be happy to look at how we can expand that sort of work further, so that Welsh businesses are heard in our international trade work. We are also working with the Department of International Trade to consider how best they can boost their resource and presence in Wales. DIT is a Department for the entire UK, and basing key staff in Wales, to work with stakeholders and the Welsh Government, can help grow our exports.

All of that is important, because, after we have left the EU, the UK will have an independent trade policy for the first time in more than four decades. I know that you will particularly welcome that, Mr Bone.

I am sure you would merely welcome the fact that this was a thorough debate, Mr Bone.

We will play a full and active role on trade policy on the global stage, working closely with friends old and new. That freedom will allow us to deploy all the tools at our disposal, tailoring our trade policy to the strengths and requirements of the UK economy, and supporting the industrial strategy. The voice of Wales will be heard at all stages of these negotiations, from mandate design to the final agreement.

The Government are making good progress in preparations for the UK’s independent trade policy, including ensuring continuity for our current trading arrangements. Just last week, the UK Government and the South Korean Government announced the transitioning of the existing EU-South Korea free trade agreement.

While the UK Government will negotiate trade deals on behalf of the United Kingdom, we have been clear from the start that the devolved Administrations should be closely involved throughout the negotiations process. That is already happening. Last year, I was in New Zealand with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. A delegation was there from Wales, already engaging on some of the challenges and opportunities that a free trade agreement with New Zealand may present to the Welsh economy, particularly in relation to agriculture.

Indeed, the Prime Minister committed to an “enhanced role” for the devolved Administrations in the next phase, respecting their competence and vital interests in these negotiations, along with the devolved Assemblies, which we will need to engage with, too. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations to deliver this, and Ministers from the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments regularly discuss how this would work in practice, in meetings such as the ministerial forum on EU negotiations. To be clear, we would include an executive from Northern Ireland, if the devolved Government is restored. At the moment, the Northern Ireland civil service represents Northern Ireland there. We hope that, in the near future, we can engage with a Northern Ireland Administration again in relation to these issues.

In conclusion, we want Wales to be part of a strong, outward looking United Kingdom outside of the European Union. The UK’s departure from the EU provides significant opportunities to foster and strengthen links, both diplomatic and economic, with countries around the world. In doing so, I believe we can attract significant global representation into Wales, to help to develop those links and support the whole drive to ensure that the United Kingdom, with Wales at its core, is a prosperous and successful country post Brexit.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.