Patrick Selman, a Cornish sailmaker, set down his needle and thick thread, paused for breath, and launched into a diatribe against the EU. “Brussels has done nothing for the UK, nothing for Cornwall. I don’t want to be run by unelected zealots who know nothing about , nothing about Britain.”
Selman, who works from a loft close to the docks in Falmouth, does much of with Europe and is no hater of the continent. He even has a Normandy flag draped from his rafters.
“Leaving will not harm my business. Staying in will. The people that want to remain are weak and willowy. They are afraid. If we stay, we’ll be using the euro, we’ll be driving on the right side of the road. We will disappear as a country and the Germans will take over. We should never have joined in the first place.”
What makes the views of Selman and other Cornish people who share his opinions all the more extraordinary is that Cornwall has, on the face of it, benefited more from EU funding than any other English region.
According to the , by 2020, if the status quo remains, Cornwall will have made £2.5bn from EU money being matched with public and private funding.
Headline projects have included the £132m scheme to bring to the far south-west, , rail improvements and the development of a state-of-the-art university campus at Penryn, a 15-minute drive from Selman’s sail loft.
Between now and 2020, key initiatives that stand to be backed by EU funding include aerospace projects – – and geothermal energy plans.
It is easy in Falmouth and its environs to find businesses that have been launched with the help of funding from Brussels.
The luxury yacht builder Pendennis, which is based in the revamped docks, has benefited from EU money, as has the clothing brand , operating from a business estate in the town. Companies that specialise in marine energy, robotics and mining have also done well.
Euroscepticism, however, is alive and kicking in Falmouth and across the far south-west. Five out of the six Cornwall MPs are in favour of leaving the EU, including the farming minister . Two of the six south-west region MEPs are from Ukip and in , Nigel Farage’s party polled three times more votes than the second-placed Lib Dems in Cornwall. The poster boys and girls of the out campaign, the Cornish , are strident in their desire to leave the EU.
Approach Falmouth town centre from the docks and you are greeted by the sight of a European flag with a red cross slashed across the golden stars, fluttering from the roof of the discount retailer Trago Mills. Trago’s full-page advert in the Cornishman includes a slab of Ukip comment claiming that would stop British money being “frittered away” on farmers “from Portugal to Lapland”.
Ray Smith, a retired builder who was shopping for garden furniture in Trago, argued that any “proud Cornishman” ought to want out of Europe. “We don’t really feel part of England, never mind Europe. We are Cornish and we don’t want to be ruled by a bunch of faceless bureaucrats hundreds of miles away. I bet if you went into one of those EU offices they wouldn’t be able to find Cornwall on a map.”
Kim Conchie, the Falmouth-based chief executive of the , said he believed there was an “anarchic, independent, contrary” streak to many Cornish people that made them suspicious of the EU.
“I really fear for Cornwall if we leave,” he said. “The EU money has created businesses, jobs, a better-educated workforce.” He said he feared that if the leave vote prevailed, Westminster would ignore Cornwall. “We had Boris Johnson here saying ‘we’ guarantee that the same amount of money will be spent in Cornwall. Who’s the ‘we’ in that? How can he give that guarantee?”
Like the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Cornish nationalist party, , is for remaining. It argues that the EU has a better record of providing funding for the region than Westminster.
The party’s economy spokesperson, Andrew Long, : “The London government has continually ignored Cornwall and its people. Funding for basic services and infrastructure has been well below the UK average and, as such, we are now rock bottom of the economic regions in terms of GDP and the fault lies squarely with Westminster.”
The steering group of the campaign group , which has attracted headlines for taking on English Heritage over , is also worried about what will happen if Britain leaves the EU.
A spokesperson said: “Cornwall has done better in Europe than out and that promise made by London-based politicians to replace Euro funding with UK funding is a hollow promise. The wise amongst the population of Cornwall are keeping their own counsel on this matter. Many will trust Europe more than Westminster.”
The grand bard of Cornwall, “” Merv Davey, said he was not so sure that most Cornish people really cared. “To be honest I think there is an immense feeling of disenfranchisement in Cornwall and it is a wonder if any of us care which way it goes,” he said.
They certainly care up at the Penryn campus, a base for both Falmouth and Exeter universities, developed with EU funding. Falmouth University’s vice-chancellor, Anne Carlisle, argued that because Cornwall was on the “edge” geographically, it was important it was also part of something bigger such as the EU.
Tom Brown, the director of the video games startup , based at the academy for innovation and research within the university, employs a Bulgarian contractor and works with a German publisher. “For my business it’s important we stay in the EU,” he said.
At the farmers’ market in Falmouth, Nigel Ekins, of The Cornish Smokehouse, purveyors of smoked fish and cheese, said he believed scepticism over the EU could be the result of the Cornish being insular, worried about anything that changed their way of living, and of bringing in new people. “People talk about loss of sovereignty. I think it is xenophobia. They fear outsiders. But in the last 30 years Cornwall has changed enormously. Back then the sight of a new car would be the talk of the town. It looks prosperous now,” he said.
Jennie Keeler was selling asparagus at the market. She and her husband, John, grow the spring vegetable on near Truro. “I’m wavering. I swing from one day to another,” she said. “I like Boris Johnson but I wonder why he is so against Europe. Is he doing it because he wants to be prime minister?” For the first time this season, Keeler is finding her produce up against imports from Poland. “That makes you think.”
Over at the Cornish Store, Anne and Keven Ayres’s stock includes novelty “Cornish border patrol” T-shirts, but they believe Cornwall is better off in the EU. “We like the idea of Europe being a place our children and grandchildren can visit and work in freely,” said Anne.
Their merchandise – cards, tea towels, cushions – is the bestselling at the moment. Anne added: “I reckon if the remain people produced some Poldark-based material, that would sway it.”