The EU has lavished more money on people in Cornwall than any other part of England, but that has not bought it popularity — and many in this remote southwestern peninsula will back Brexit in Thursday’s vote.
In the harbour at Cornwall’s biggest port, Newlyn, fishing boats fly “Vote Leave” flags from their rigging, while fishermen are caustic about the European Union.
“I shall vote for out,” said Pete Downing, after docking his small vessel after an unsuccessful mackerel fishing trip. “It’s an absolute bloody shambles, always has been.”
Like many in his trade, Downing believes the EU’s system of fishing quotas has accelerated the industry’s decline and is angry at French and Spanish boats fishing in British waters.
Although a popular summer holiday destination, the southwestern county of Cornwall is the poorest in England.
But its poverty and remoteness make it a huge beneficiary of EU funds — the highest of any region in England per capita — for spending on infrastructure and business grants.
Between 2007 and 2013, the county and its half a million residents received 654 million euros ($735 million) from Brussels. For 2014-2020, structural and investment funding per person will total £1,078 (1,390 euros, $1,577).
Despite the payouts, 55 percent of Cornish people want to quit the EU, according to research cited by the Centre for European Reform think-tank this month.
Five out of six Cornish lawmakers also want to quit.
Many pro-Brexiteers claim Britain gives more money to the EU than it receives, and so the idea of European support is false.
“If we left the EU, we wouldn’t have to give money in the first place,” Downing said. “It’s stupid to give money away and then have it back, isn’t it?”
– When Cornwall had industries –
While fishing in Cornwall is in decline, it is still a major employer and a key part of the fiercely independent county’s identity.
Felicity Edwards, a 61-year-old who works in accounts, complained that EU funding did not fill the gap left by the fall of such traditional industries.
“I remember a time when Cornwall had industries, and a lot of this funding isn’t for permanent, full-time jobs and I think that’s what Cornwall needs,” she said.
Toby Parkins’s software outsourcing firm Headforwards does provide long-term jobs — for those with the right skills.
He said much EU investment had gone into “knowledge-based economies” and acknowledged that not everyone in Cornwall saw the immediate impact of that.
“They (the EU) want to try and promote jobs that basically pay higher salaries, to increase GDP,” he said.
“Therefore not everyone necessarily sees the benefit of that directly. Their grandchildren might, or their children.”
The firm has received EU funding for its modern offices on a business park in the town of Pool, which was once a centre of the copper and tin mining industry.
It also relies on the area’s fast broadband, part-funded by the EU, and around 15 of its 65 staff come from other EU countries.
– ‘Generations in poverty’ –
Some argue that the EU has been far better at investing money in Cornwall than the British government in London, five hours drive and a cultural world away.
Joanie Willett, a politics lecturer at the University of Exeter who is based at a Cornish campus which has received EU funding, said a Brexit could lead to “generations in poverty”.
“Unless the southwest gets incredibly good at making sure we get on the (British government’s) agenda, it as a whole — and Cornwall in particular — will just be the rural hinterland that you go to on holiday,” she said.
Kim Conchie, chief executive of Cornwall’s pro-European Chamber of Commerce, agrees the bloc has done more for the region than London ever did.
But he warned: “The Cornish are quite independent-spirited and quite anarchic and the authority that deserves a kicking at the moment in their minds is the European Union.”