EU referendum: The helping hand of Brussels?

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Bodinnick Ferry
Image caption,
Cornwall receives hundreds of millions of pounds of EU funding

The poorest county in England is Cornwall. It is also one of two areas of the UK that gets the maximum help possible from the European Union. So how do the Cornish people view the referendum debate?

Step into the gleaming offices of the Pool Innovation Centre and you step into an air-conditioned, flat-white-fuelled future.

It is a little bland, to be honest, offices and screens and communal kitchens, but it is the kind of working environment that you would expect to see in Singapore or San Francisco or anywhere in the world where tomorrow's big companies are being built.

Until recently you would not have expected to see it in Pool, which is a pretty deprived little place close to the once prosperous mining town of Redruth.

For decades, following the demise of Cornish mining, places like this suffered.

Yes, Redruth is only a few miles from wonderful Cornish beaches and at this time of year it is bathed in equally wonderful Cornish sunshine, but when it comes to work, opportunity, and the life chances of local people, Redruth has offered little.

That is why the Pool Innovation Centre matters.

It is more than just an office block, it is a place where businesses can mingle and learn from each other.

Image caption,
Craig Girvan says money from the EU can help to rebuild Cornwall

Craig Girvan, from software development firm Headforwards, tells me this base, and the fast broadband speeds on offer, have allowed him to build a firm locally, that in years gone by would have had to be moved elsewhere in the country to be successful.

European money paid most of the costs of getting the centre started, and much of the costs of fast broadband as well.

He is clear that the European money can continue to rebuild Cornwall. "Everyone here benefits from high wage jobs coming to the locality, from money being made here and spent here."

'Big money'

And the EU money is big money: the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Growth Programme runs from 2014-2020 and in that time €603,706,863 will be spent, mainly from two Brussels funds: Regional Development and Social.

The point about this big money is that Cornwall gets it not because of political pressure or horse trading but as of right: the county has a GDP of less that 75% of the EU average, so the money flows.

But wait. Isn't it our money anyway?

Perhaps we might decide, as Boris Johnson suggested on a recent trip to the South West, to carry on funding these projects but not, as the former mayor of London put it, "to funnel it through Brussels".

Image caption,
Bruce Robertson has confidence in Cornish MPs


That is certainly the view of Bruce Robertson who is the boss of the shopping centre chain Trago Mills.

In the slightly kitsch surroundings of his base near Liskeard, he told me the key to understanding his hostility to the EU was what it did to us as people.

We were not standing on our own feet at the moment, and once we left the EU we would be reborn as a nation.

If Cornwall needed money, then Cornish MPs could argue for it at Westminster and do so successfully. Mr Robertson is pretty confident that would happen.

Confident enough to have a huge Vote Leave poster at the entrance to his shopping centre and in case the message was not rammed home enough, a statue nearby of the Emperor Nero with the inscription, "Nero only fiddled, Eurocrats practise grand larceny".

The view from a Cornish farmer

Media caption,

Jessica Jeans, a farmer from Saltash in Cornwall, airs her views on the forthcoming EU referendum

'Du Maurier country'

Time to head across the river Fowey on the Bodinnick Ferry which takes just a few cars a time and costs a whopping £4.60 to go just a few hundred metres to get to the town of Fowey.

This does not feel like a deprived place.

It sells itself as "in the heart of Du Maurier country" and the remnants of the old wealthy Cornwall are all around: the inns and the grand homes.

Image caption,
Dr Joanie Willett says that EU money is down to Cornwall's picture postcard appeal

But Dr Joanie Willett, from the University of Exeter's local Cornish campus, points out to me, as we survey the lovely scene, that Cornwall's picture-postcard upmarket appeal is recent.

"When I grew up here, it was awful," she says.

"You had to wait two years before you could even apply for an unskilled job."

Politicians in London, far from backing the area, completely ignored it, she claims.

Only when the EU money started to flow did Cornwall start to recover.

Is Cornwall's future dependent on EU funding?

Could the money come just as easily from Westminster?

These are not arguments that will be decisive for everyone here; plenty of Cornish people might choose to vote from a sense of identity that has little to do with economics, but in a county where so much money comes from Brussels, the argument about funding really matters.