Aberystwyth was my home for three years when I was a student here. It was in Aberystwyth that I joined Plaid Cymru in 1977 in the Fresher's Fair when I first started college. It was here that I campaigned in my first ever European election in 1979, supporting our candidate Dr Dafydd Huws. 1979 was also a year that showed me the size of the task we faced. Little did I think that twenty years later I would be taking my seat as the first Plaid Cymru MEP after we won the best Plaid result ever in 1999.
This is the last annual conference before the European elections take place in May 2014. We have held one out of the four Welsh seats since 2004 and I can tell you, I don't intend to let it go now! We have gained incredible momentum over the last few months, momentum that has seen us win amazing victories in Ynys Mon and in Penyrheol and we need to continue that momentum through the European elections, through the Westminster elections and right through to 2016 when Leanne Wood becomes Wales's First Minister.
Plaid Cymru has changed the Welsh political narrative on the European Union. We have ensured that no credible party could ever dispute the fact that Wales is financially better off in the EU. The figures don't lie. They are there for all to see. When I published research showing this, no-one could argue against it. But it was just as significant that no-one else had even looked at it. That proved that only we, the Party of Wales, represent the Welsh national interest in Europe.
Plaid Cymru's vision for Wales in Europe is that of an independent Wales, a Member State, a Wales with a seat at the debating table and a vote on Europe's future. Currently in the Council of the EU we are represented by the UK government. I don't need to tell you that the Welsh national interest is very different to the interests of the UK government of whatever party. If we are not there to speak for Wales then no-one will.
Wales currently has four MEPs to represent over 3 million people. If we were an independent Member State we would have nine. Think of all the work we could do with nine MEPs! We want to be on an equal footing with the other nations of the EU, six of which are smaller than Wales, but are member states in their own right. We want the benefits and the influence they have. We have a right to that!
Our voice is strengthened through being a member of the European Free Alliance. With EFA we work for equality for all peoples, for the right to decide our own futures and help shape a more open and democratic Europe.
It is an exciting time for EFA. Scotland could be on its way to becoming Member State number 29. The Catalan Government are drawing up their independence referendum question which they vote on by the end of the year in parliament. As the voice of the Catalan people grows ever louder, demanding their independence, so the Catalan government's will becomes ever stronger to deliver it.
I am sure you saw photos of the 400km human chain, The Catalan Way, that stretched across Catalonia in September, reminding us of the "Baltic Way" in the 1980s that led to the independence of those countries and the transformation of Europe. The yearning for democracy is as strong now as ever.
I can understand why people are Eurosceptic. We all know what bad press the EU gets. Many are stories invented by the UKIP press - sorry, I mean the UK press. In fact, the UK press makes up myths about the EU on such a regular basis that the European Commission has had to set up a "Euromyths blog" to demystify us. Unfortunately few people read this blog compared to the number that read the stories in the papers.
I am proud to be an MEP for a party that sees the value of our European partnership and co-operation. Yes, there's a lot about the EU that should be changed - we have always called for that. The monthly move between Brussels and Strasbourg is a waste of time and money and costs millions of pounds to us, the European taxpayers. Small businesses in Wales should be able to access support more easily to help rebuild our economy and there should be a second chamber of the European Parliament where all the nations and regions are represented. We are campaigning for change - but change that benefits the people of Wales. The advantages of EU membership far outweigh the alternative - isolationism.
It’s possible of course that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union will be held in 2017. We shouldn’t fear this. But the debate in Wales must focus on the Welsh national interest. We are Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales. We put the people of Wales first – every time. That is what the people of Wales elect us to do. We’ve been in the European Union for forty years. I was a little too young to vote on the question of our membership of the European Economic Community, as it was known at the time. But I remember the debate surrounding membership – and the fact that the British Government’s White Paper didn’t contain a word in it regarding the implications for Wales. We shall not let that happen again.
Yesterday, Leanne reminded us, in the most powerful manner, of the reason why the European project was established in the first place and of how far Europe has come since then. Next year will mark the centenary of the First World War. The Second World War started 74 years ago last month. The Berlin Wall only came down 24 years ago to unite Europe.
In accepting the Nobel Prize for peace in 1998, John Hume, related the experience of his first trip to the Parliament at Strasbourg, some years earlier as a new MEP.
He said, “"I went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg to Kehl. Strasbourg is in France. Kehl is in Germany. They are very close. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. There is Germany. There is France. If I had stood on this bridge 30 years ago after the end of the second world war when 25 million people lay dead across our continent for the second time in this century and if I had said: "Don't worry. In 30 years' time we will all be together in a new Europe, our conflicts and wars will be ended and we will be working together in our common interests", I would have been sent to a psychiatrist. But it has happened."
John Hume was right then, and his words resonate more strongly than ever today.
There might be a few creases to iron out in the immense tapestry of our European Union, but it is our European Union. The European Parliament is as much a parliament for Wales as it is for any other nation. We must regain it for the people of Wales and for all the people of Europe.
Despite the frustration of representing a nation that cannot yet play its full part in Europe; by working together across borders, alongside the mosaic of languages and cultures that makes the European Union so special, I am reminded everyday as an MEP that such peaceful collaboration is a gift to be cherished. Today the EU consists of 28 European countries working together towards a common good.
In a practical way, Europe has given us the freedom to travel, to live, to study and work in other countries – and the same freedom to people from other countries to contribute towards our society in Wales. We do not subscribe to the kind of politics that foments fear and hatred between people.
2014 marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. A time to remember and also to look ahead at creating a better world and to look towards Europe’s future. We need to look again at undertaking the role of keeping the peace. We certainly don’t wish to see the European Union moving towards militarism. Indeed, there is a need to move in a totally different direction.
What better way to mark the centenary of the First World War than to set up an EU Civil Peace Corps to defuse tension and foster understanding between people, resolving and preventing conflict. Made up not of soldiers but of doctors, teachers, engineers – people with the skills to help build communities and tolerance – working hand in hand with the United Nations. That is the way to note the tragedy – by creating a different and better future.
But peace needs justice. I have opposed the austerity measures which have brought misery to so many people. Now is the time to invest in people, to create jobs, to recover and rebuild Europe. We have to change the system today to secure our economy, our cultures and our environment tomorrow.
We believe in independence not dependence. Wales is not a poor country but it is an impoverished one, as a result of London government policies. Our wealth was taken out of Wales. As a result, our GDP continues to drop. It currently sits at 70% of the EU average.
This does not mean that the EU is failing us; contrary to popular belief, the EU does not dictate how we must spend European funding. It is up to the Welsh Government to decide how the money is spent. That's where the blame for lack of progress lies.
Plaid Cymru is the only party with a real vision and real ambition for Wales. In the same way that the Basque Country transformed its economy with new ideas and a long term plan, Plaid Cymru can offer Wales its own unique solutions, building on our strengths, our talents and expertise, and looking to forging our own future in Europe. We need a dynamic government, a Plaid Cymru government, that is going to tackle our problems head on. Not blaming someone else as an excuse for inaction, but doing something about it ourselves.
There are areas of Wales where youth unemployment is close to 50%. That is not acceptable. That's why we are calling on the Welsh Government to make a real commitment to young people to provide employment and training. The government should be lobbying to get the extra European funding available for this, for areas of exceptional need.
The European elections in May are the next step in this party's journey and in Wales's journey forward - and in Europe's journey too. We want to give the people of Wales the power to choose how to run our own political, economic and social affairs - to be free to shape Wales into the kind of country that is only limited by our imagination - to represent ourselves and show Europe that we can join other small countries in being successful and delivering prosperity for our people. Our vision is for Wales as a vibrant, successful, prosperous, bilingual, modern European nation.
I have been proud to serve this party and this country in the heart of Europe. I am prouder still to lead our team of fantastic candidates in the elections in May and to deliver the best result ever for this party and for Wales.
Jill Evans MEP