Listen to this article
The EU’s largesse stretches in all directions in Penryn, a faded waterfront town in England’s westernmost county of Cornwall.
There is the brand new university campus on the hill above the town, built with more than £100m from Brussels. Down at the water’s edge, the EU has helped transform a dilapidated wharf into a funky office space. It has spruced up roads and rail lines. And it has spent £50m to help bring superfast broadband internet service to a remote region where it was scarce.
Yet many in Penryn are ready to quit the EU when Britain holds a national referendum next month. It is a state of affairs that even the town’s longtime residents struggle to comprehend.
“It’s absolutely astonishing,” says Caroline Cox, who helps manage the EU-supported Jubilee Wharf development. “It’s this flabbergasting situation where so much money has been put in [by the EU] yet people are turning their backs.”
With just 530,000 people, Cornwall took in more than €654m from Brussels during the EU’s 2007 to 2013 budget cycle, among the UK’s biggest beneficiaries. It has been earmarked at least €600m more — worth some €1,209 per person — up to 2020. But Cornwall is a reminder that the EU’s money does not necessarily buy love.
Five of the region’s six MPs are backing Brexit. Those who support remaining in the EU are panicking at the discovery of “outers” all around them.
“My own wife wants out. I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell off my chair,” says Peter Moody, a printing company owner who does not believe the risk of leaving outweighs the potential benefits.
Many in Cornwall appear motivated by less-quantifiable factors. The region has traditionally lived from the sea and residents are often furious at EU fishing policies, which they believe have benefited French and Spanish fleets at their expense. Cornwall also shares much of the western world’s palpable dissatisfaction with government and elites — an anger that, in this instance, has fuelled a movement to ban second home purchases by wealthy outsiders. And the campaign has cast a light on passions — fundamentally concerning identity — that are not easily reconciled by development grants or economic projections.
Tucked away in Britain’s remote south-west corner, with its own heritage and language, Cornwall does not always enthusiastically identify itself as English, still less as European.
“We’re different from the English,” said one woman handing out Vote Leave pamphlets last week, explaining her contempt for the EU. “We’re Celts — no one tells us what to do!”
Still, some locals strongly support the EU, which has provided economic support to a region that has struggled to regain its prosperity since the closure of tin mines in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bert Biscoe, a poet and musician who is an independent member of Cornwall’s governing council, credits Brussels for nurturing Cornwall’s cultural identity.
“It enabled us to see ourselves differently,” he says. He is convinced two recent EU investments in Cornwall — broadband internet and a new university campus — will transform the region by allowing talented young people to build businesses rather than joining an exodus that dates from the tin mines’ collapse. “More young people now want to stay in Cornwall than leave,” he says. “That’s huge!”
Built on the site of an old nunnery, Falmouth University’s Penryn campus did not even exist until 2001. The EU has given its 5,000 students their own film and television school, a performing arts facility with state of the art recording studios and much more. Its administrative building — with blonde wooden beams and window shades that adjust automatically throughout the day — looks as if it has been transplanted from Berlin.
A sign outside with the EU flag notes Brussels’ contribution. Similar plaques dot the campus. “They’re very insistent. You must put up the signs,” says Anne Carlisle, the vice-chancellor.
That seems a small nuisance for a campus that may help lift Cornwall from its standing as the UK region with the lowest proportion of higher education students. But to critics, the EU signs signify wasteful spending. A much-publicised 2011 study found that Cornwall — for all the EU funding — had failed to improve its per-capita GDP. Job creation also fell well short of projections. “People said: ‘I told you so!’” said Kim Conchie, chief executive of the Cornwall chamber of commerce.
One of the outers’ chief arguments — made by former London mayor Boris Johnson when he helped kick off the Leave campaign in Cornwall last week — is that the UK could better invest in its own regions without first cycling the money through Brussels.
Mr Conchie and Ms Carlisle are not convinced. “The EU’s been a much better mechanism for getting money from the wealthier parts of Britain to the poorer parts than our own government’s ever been,” Mr Conchie says. “And yet it seems as though there’s a huge amount of Cornish people, perhaps who don’t know the facts of all that money that we’ve had from the EU, who rail against it.”
Few in Penryn view such funding as a decisive argument. When David Seabourne, a local fishmonger, approached the EU for help relocating his business a year ago, “there was so much red tape and jumping through hoops I decided it would be easier to do it off my own bat,” he says.
Even when he looks at the EU sign on the disused coal yard that a £600,000 Brussels grant helped turn into an office and residential complex, Mr Seabourne makes clear his discontent: “If that money were kept in the UK, that plaque would just say: ‘British government money.” And when asked how they will vote next month, he and his staff reply without hesitation: “Out!”
View the FT’s comprehensive guide to the vote on whether Britain should stay in Europe, with all the latest news and analysis from both sides of the debate here
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published