Cultural Union: Continental Drift? EU-UK negotiations in the cultural sector

It’s a two-hour train journey from London to Brussels, a 33.3km crossing of the Channel and a mere step across the border in Ireland. Yet the UK and the EU are drifting apart. The cultural sector has been united in defending the permanence of the UK in the EU. Above 96% of the UK’s cultural and creative practitioners supported the option to remain in Europe and this should be acknowledged. CAE, the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) and Bozar gathered policy makers, cultural operators and representatives of civil society organisations in Brussels to kick-start the conversation on the UK-EU negotiations ahead in the cultural field.

Artists have always travelled across Europe. First, from court to court; now, from festival to festival, gallery to gallery and theatre to theatre. In this way, they help to shape and disseminate the ideas that constitute the basis of Europe. The creative Industries’ value chain is international in nature and the European institutions have recognised the economic potential of culture. Securing the ability of the cultural sector to continue to operate trans-nationally is crucial.

The public debate Continental Drift? EU-UK negotiations in the cultural sector on 8 December in Brussels explored three crucial dimensions for the period ahead. Clymene Christoforou, CAE board member and Co-director of ISIS Arts, set the stage by introducing the three strands of discussion for the evening; the effect of uncertainty, the role of culture in the wider European project and the implications of the UK vote for citizenship, as well as the alternative models for a future relation between the EU and the UK.

Being part of the EU family fosters the emergence of multiple, non-exclusive identities that are not based on the hegemony of a single language, culture or religion. “I have always been able to define my Welshness more clearly in a European context. Coming from a small bilingual country, other languages and cultures were never a threat to Welsh identity but enhanced it”, said Jill Evans, MEP for Plaid Cymru, opening the event. The biggest concern for the cultural sector in Wales in regards to the future EU-UK relations is the loss of freedom of movement. According to Evans, an increase in the costs of touring and bureaucracy is foreseen; and that at a time when the arts face public expenditure cuts. In the period ahead, she will advocate for a EU wide citizenship based on residency, the creation of cultural attaches to ensure that partnerships are maintained, the participation of the UK in programmes such as Creative Europe, Interreg or the Social and Regional funds and a cultural exemption for artists in terms of possible free movement restrictions.

Julie Ward, member of the European Parliament from S&D made a strong call for artists and cultural operators to get involved at all levels and influence the tone of the debate in the negotiations ahead. Ward encouraged cultural activists to use their voice to communicate that freedom of movement and immigration are profoundly good things; not only they bring economic prosperity, but also the richness of cultural diversity. “ Exclusion and otherness does not feature in the EU language, so I hope the EU will not deny the UK the opportunity to return”, said Ward in a video message.

The implications of Brexit on the European creative industries are not yet assessed by the Member States, said Bernd Fesel, Senior Adviser in the European Centre for Creative Economy (ecce). He thinks that this is because of the EU’s firm position not to engage in conversations until Article 50 is triggered. Such an approach leads to a non-debate and contributing to the current uncertainty. Although the creative industries drive innovation and create jobs, their advocated power of inclusion was not reflected in the UK vote. Moreover, leave voters may perceive the cultural system as part of THE system, as sections of the population clearly do not benefit from CCIs in terms of growth and jobs. Inevitably, this leads to question the current paradigm of the creative industries in relation to the current social needs. Should cultural actors and policy makers focus on the economic strengths of CCS or rather on the social agenda? He highlighted the anxiety caused by budget cuts at a national level that would now be exacerbated by the loss of European funding.

Fesel made a call to also engage on the war of words. “When an MEP says Brexit is Brexit, I know this is propaganda, I am saying Brexit is not Brexit. UK will always be part of the European Union”.

What are the implications of Brexit on the European citizenship? Assya Kavrakova, Director of European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), an international organisation working on citizen’ rights, reiterated the current lack of clarity regarding the future UK-EU relation. “Uncertainty, is the word”, she said. Kavrakova presented a study, which will be officially launched in January, looking at different models of UK-EU relation and their implication regarding membership rights. The analysis considers the Cameron’s deal, the Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Turkish models in relation to various rights, ranging from right to entry to right to non-discrimination, among others[1]. Kavrakova stressed the importance of approaching the negotiations ahead with well-informed, evidence-based proposals. ECAS analysis complements CAE’s Little guide to the UK-EU negotiations and together, offer a solid base to our members to start the process of formulating a position. Speaking from her Bulgarian experience she called to not take for granted the rights that the EU has provided.

Jeanie Scott, executive director of a-n, the largest membership organisation for visual artists in the UK, shared insights from their survey on the impact of the referendum for UK artists. The fact that 12% of a-n members hold a non-UK passport, the majority of these from EU countries, highlights the interconnectedness of the European cultural sector. In this regard, losing freedom of movement is a source of anxiety, as 54% of a-n’s artists had travelled to Europe between 1 and 6 times in the last 12 months for work.

Travel is seen as a vital element for the development of artists as intellectual exchange and the creation of networks are at the basis upon which their activities evolve. Import and export rules and losing EU protective legislation, particularly in relation to discrimination, also emerged as main concerns for UK artists. While acknowledging the economic dimension of Brexit, Scott asked: “How about emotional and social impact?” She shared that for the majority of a-n members the result of the vote generated a very real sense of loss. Many a-n members cited a philosophical commitment to the arts as an “inclusive and outward-looking” sector, hence forcing many to question what they do, or can do in the face of the referendum result and the rise of far right politics. She reported on the growing appetite for ‘activism’ and solidarity, including on European issues.

The UK representation was complemented by Harriet Finney, Deputy CEO and Policy Director of the Creative Industries Federation (CIF), an organisation representing Culture, Education and the CI sectors. She presented the main results of their extensive Brexit report, that shows that 96% of the sector voted to remain. It also reflects the diversity of the UK workforce with a strong presence of EU nationals. The freelance status of many workers was highlighted as a source of concern and CIF would like to promote a modality of freelance or self-employed visa.

Regarding sources of funding, the diversity of EU programmes the UK cultural sector is reliant on was brought to light, while the Creative Europe programme emerged as central in the formation of international networks. The EU market is fundamental for the UK creative industries, which are often small size enterprises, without the time or resources to open new markets. Finally, the digital single market and IP was also a crucial concern for the industry.

Europe has always been more than coal and steel, free trade, more than money and currency, thinks Friso Wiersum from the European Cultural Foundation (ECF). He stressed ECF’s belief that Europe is a space where culture, when understood in its broader sense, is a cornerstone of dialogue. Democracy needs imagination, he said, and new discourses that go beyond the current economic paradigm. ECF contributes to alleviate uncertainty by ensuring that UK artists are eligible for ECF’s grants and mobility programmes. Wiersum highlighted the need for social impact across Europe, an area ECF is working on through its connected action for the commons, where artists and change makers can help people to define current social challenges and reimagine democracy.

ECF is also supporting the development of an indicator on culture and democracy that demonstrates that culture does contribute to a more democratic society. This is urgently needed as we see increasing social fragmentation and inequality.

All panelists delved on the increased social divide and feeling of disenfranchisement of sections of the population. The UK cultural sector feels that stepping out their comfort zone is long overdue, while recognising its weakness at putting this intention into practice. Christoforou challenged the audience by asking if the current rhetoric questioning elites, intellectuals and the establishment also applies to the cultural sector. MEP Jill Evans acknowledged that, while the motivations behind the vote are complex, part of the Brexit vote was directed against politicians, as main expression of the establishment, a construct that may include the cultural sector. She noted that indeed, politicians have not yet properly engaged with people in a much-needed post-Brexit dialogue in those communities that feel most disenfranchised.

Wiersum conveyed the image of Clinton next to powerful entertainment figures during the presidential campaign. Deep questioning of the best approach for the arts to attempt to bridge the divide followed. Are we to confront those who oppose our shared fundamental principles and values? Is it our time to listen or is the role of the cultural and creative sector to mediate and translate societies’ frustrations and anxieties? Kavrakova pointed to the fact that citizens want to be asked more than once, not solely before elections, but this should be done in a responsible manner, unlike the UK referendum.

MEP Jill Evans insisted on the wide diversity of European funding that the sector benefits from and the need to identify those programmes that are open to non-EU countries. She noted that the most vulnerable, particularly young people, will be the most affected by the loss of EU funding. Evaluation of priorities of lost funding will necessarily follow after Article 50; hence it is important that the arts present their case. Jeannie Scott shared that more than 30% of their members had benefited from EU funding in the last 12 months. Participants reiterated the variety of funding, ranging from structural funds, to Erasmus +, to of course, Creative Europe and asked for a more detailed mapping of these founding sources and their hybridisation, up until today unclear. The UK Creative Europe Desk shared in the ensuing debate that the UK Treasury has guaranteed to underwrite all successful Creative European project that continue beyond the exit date, hence easing uncertainty on the short-term.

On the medium and long term, now is the time to establish new partnerships and deepen existing ones, engaging in conversations among practitioners and between sectors, while making visible the contribution of EU to the UK (consider a EU strike, closing all EU funded infrastructure and activities for a day! Fesel provoked). Wiersum called for optimism, imagination and active engagement with those disenchanted rather than lamenting the loss of better times. Kavrakova called for building alliances across European organisations to influence the negotiations and affirmed that ECAS will continue to work with the UK independently of the result of future UK-EU agreement. Christoforou closed the session by reflecting on the fact that since the referendum, it has become clear that the UK is considerably more European than it previously believed to be. Let’s build on this, she said, and continue to work for this renewed Europeaness and the European values we cherish.

[1] Other rights analysed are the Right to entry, right to residence and work, right to social security, right to do business, services & consumer protection, passenger rights, right to non-discrimination, voting rights and access to EU institutions.


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