Keeping Europe’s cultural links alive

Ciarán Devane on the importance of continued collaboration after Brexit

It is difficult to make a case for collaboration in the arts, culture and education in Europe during a Brexit debate dominated by adversarial positions on trade, immigration and economics. But such a case needs to be made in a constructive and audible way. It is these quieter sectors that will underpin Britain’s future relationship with the continent, and ease fractious relationships as we break the political bonds that have accumulated over the 44 years since Britain joined the EEC.

The British Council’s EU-UK Culture and Education Series brought together leaders of the education, science and research, arts and culture sectors to discuss the future of collaboration in these fields between Britain and EU27 after Brexit.

As an organization dedicated to cultural exchange it is our duty to look for areas of common interest, not points of departure. From the outset we planned to send the recommendations drawn up by participants to both sides of the Brexit negotiating table. We wanted to help frame the relationship with Europe, putting educational and cultural exchange at the centre of Britain’s future European engagement.

We gathered together the heads of cultural institutions, scientific researchers, university vice chancellors and the heads of museums, orchestras and dance troupes.

We mixed people from across the continent, including the mayor of Romania’s second city, Cluj-Napoca, the executive director of Britain’s Royal Society and representatives from the Spanish Ministry of Education and French universities.

We had support from the Goethe-Institut, the Institut Français and the Instituto Cervantes. Indeed the recommendations have subsequently been endorsed by the entire network of European National Cultural Institutes. We listened to the voices of students and young people.

Our parallel approach to negotiations is proof of an idea we promote as an organization: that culture operates on an alternative track to traditional politics and foreign policy. It is a track which maintains relationships between countries even during political turbulence. It is a track which becomes all the more important as we break away from the political ties of the EU. Our consensual approach has already gained the ear of the European Parliament whose Cultural Committee has discussed the recommendations.

Cross-border consensus was what we sought from the very start. A clear set of priorities and policy recommendations for the future of the education, culture and science and research sectors after Britain leaves the EU.

The key priorities raised by leaders in these sectors across all 28 EU countries and beyond, subsequently endorsed by more than 400 signatures are:

  • Ensuring those in the education, culture and science sectors and young people involved in exchanges remain able to move easily between Britain and other EU countries, possibly in the form of a simple, cheap and easy to obtain ‘culture and education permit’
  • Guaranteeing residency rights for EU nationals currently living and working in the UK and vice-versa
  • Continued UK participation in and contribution to multilateral programmes such as Erasmus+, Horizon 2020, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions and Creative Europe
  • Engaging young people in future policy-making and offering every young person in the UK and other European countries the opportunity of an inter-cultural and international experience, through areas such as study, work, performance, research and language learning or exchanges.

The place of culture in Europe in this wide sense needs to be understood as being distinct from the EU. The British Council has been enabling cultural exchange on the continent for decades, long before the European Coal and Steel Community started the journey towards an economic and political union.

Britain’s place in European culture is as inextricable as our place in European history. While the EU has become the vehicle for projects of this nature,  it would be a mistake to walk away from this type of cooperation in a desire to ‘take back control’.

These fields may have taken a back seat in talks of economics, trade deals and legal jurisdiction, but they should still be in the minds of negotiators. They are an important means of fuelling the creativity, innovation and goodwill that leads to thriving trade and economic growth.

In the adversarial climate of negotiations, these recommendations represent a quiet voice for cooperation between the peoples of Britain and Europe with solid, sensible suggestions for our future outside the EU.