Brexit, flags of the European Union and the United Kingdom, over

So, the UK is out of the EU – well, sort of…

What does it all mean and where do we go from here?

I have been working in an EU related capacity since the mid 1990s – ever since I was part of the consultancy team advising the embryonic Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts (LIPA) and helping to persuade various powers-that-be in Liverpool, London and Brussels that EU Structural Funds could be spent on developing that project – with the positive result that LIPA became the first arts or cultural project anywhere in Europe to receive EU Structural Funds.

What a great start to the 25 years I subsequently spent providing information and support to arts organisations across the UK, and also in other European countries, to understand and access EU funds.  My company, Euclid, was also privileged to have the contract from the European Commission from 1999-2009 to be the official UK Cultural Contact Point (CCP) – the forerunner of the current Creative Europe Desk (for the Culture funding programme).  These were great years and I worked with many wonderful people in the CCPs across the Member States, and within the EU institutions – though my constructive criticism of the EU’s policies and practices regarding the Culture programme did create some tensions – the bureaucrats rarely seemed able to see beyond the criticism that in fact I was a consistent Europhile. Hey ho.

In recent years, post the Brexit referendum, my work has shifted slightly – though I still make EU presentations in the UK and abroad and advise people on their EU funding applications, my focus in the last year or so has been on identifying and analysing the amounts of EU funding that the arts and culture sector has received.  A few years ago, I did a series of research studies for Arts Council England, Historic England, Creative Scotland, Museums Galleries Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland, Arts Council of Wales and Cadw (the heritage agency for Wales).  In 2019 I undertook an extensive project for the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) that explored all EU funding received by their sectors since 2007.  This was followed by a pan-European study for the Network of Museum Organisations (NEMO).  I have accumulated a mountain of data, from which a wide range of conclusions can be drawn – thank goodness I love spreadsheets! (sad, really…)

To return to Brexit, one very clear implication of these studies is that it could be argued that government has under-estimated the levels of EU funding (especially from the EU Structural & Investment Funds, ESIF) received by the arts & culture sector (using the broadest definitions) in the past.

The exit at 11pm on 31 January is, of course, a bit of a smokescreen as to what happens in the future.  Until the end of the year, there are virtually no changes – UK organisations can still apply to trans-national funds such as Creative Europe, Erasmus Plus and Horizon 2020, and the government has guaranteed that selected projects will receive funding for the entire duration of their projects.

But what happens after 31 December 2020?  Well, we really have no idea what our future relationship with the EU will be, and there is a strong chance that we won’t be 100% clear at 31 December – the transition period may be extended, for a start.  However, any deal – whether it is closer to “hard” or “soft” – could well mean that the only change as far as the trans-national funds are concerned is that the UK is re-classified as a “third country” (like Norway or Serbia) rather than being an EU Member State – and we can continue to participate in all these programmes as we have in the past.

This does not apply to the Structural Funds of course – replacing these funds is in the hands of the UK and devolved governments – and, in my view, the replacement funds being talked about by the government will be seen by many people as somewhat inadequate.

However, this is all very much a pragmatic response.  This is obviously important to individual arts and culture organisations – and to me, as I am keen to keep earning some income from advising potential applicants, or by undertaking further research projects to mine all that date I have collected!

But there is another response – what does it all mean to who we are?

My view is that leaving the EU is a step in the wrong direction.  For the same reason that the UK works (or has worked – whither Scotland?) as a grouping of nations, I believe the countries of Europe are and will be better off, economically, socially and culturally, as part of a pan-national grouping that enables and encourages freedom of movement and mechanisms that break down the barriers between member states.  I cannot see that being part of the EU means that countries lose their national identity – is France or Italy any less French or Italian as a result of 50+ years of EU membership?

I also cannot see the alleged benefits of being outside the EU – there is no evidence that any replacement trade deals (even with the US) can replace, let alone improve on, the economic benefits of our trade with the EU.  In fact, the evidence would seem to indicate that a US trade deal would require lower food standards and other detrimental steps, and that one with India will imply more Indian immigrants – not what many leavers wanted.

And there are the unintended consequences – the potential independence of Scotland and the reunification of Ireland – which could well leave a most disunited kingdom of England and Wales.

I have done a Brexit based show at the Edinburgh Fringe over the last 4 years – Knowing EU / Know Brexit / It’s A Dog’s Brexit / The Good, The Bad & The Brexit – and last year, slightly bizarrely, I was invited to present this in Lithuania for an event organised by Kaunas Capital of Culture 2022.  To make sure I could deal with the hecklers (in Edinburgh – they’re much too polite in Kaunas), I did a considerable amount of additional research about the EU (far from perfect, it has to be admitted), the implications of Brexit, and the options for our future relationship.  The more I uncovered, the clearer it became that Brexit had the potential to be the biggest mis-step that the UK has taken in the last 50 years.

So, though there may be no solution to the hole left by the disappearance of the Structural Funds, I really hope that opportunities for the UK to participate in the trans-national funds continues, and that UK arts and cultural organisations grab these opportunities with both hands – these are perhaps even more important in the future than they have been while we were an EU Member State.  And I also hope that organisations in other countries can forgive us for this bewildering decision, and remember the majority of people in the UK seek, at the very least, to remain friends with Europe, and to participate in the life enhancing projects that EU funding can and does support.

We’re still European.