Cultural ties depend on far more than a competition organised by EU bureaucrats

Cultural ties depend on far more than a competition organised by EU bureaucrats

A year ago the Department for Culture, Media and Sport reportedly expected that the UK would pull out of arrangements to host a European Capital of Culture in 2023, until the Foreign Secretary intervened. He recommended that we should continue to engage in the process as a diplomatic gesture of goodwill: a public recognition that European culture is something we will always share with our neighbours. So the process went forward with a warning that results “may be subject to the outcome of those exit negotiations which could have a bearing on the UK’s participation and the government will advise bidding cities on this once negotiations have concluded”.

How strange then, with those negotiations not due to conclude until early 2019, that the European Commission should now catch up with DCMS’s original position. In fact, a European Capital of Culture to be hosted by the UK in 2023 remained on the official calendar in EU documents as recently as mid-September. Only in the last week did a decision that our participation could not go ahead reach the news.

One fairly obvious explanation is that the timing is sheer political theatre, intended to increase public pressure on the UK at a critical juncture in the Brexit talks. Otherwise the decision is either wildly premature, since the talks have not concluded, or wildly overdue, since the question was first raised a year ago.

Still, as theatrics go, it’s hardly the greatest show on Earth, or even in whatever counts as Europe. Amusing though it’s been to hear of the government holding “urgent discussions” about cultural matters (if only listed buildings at risk got that kind of political urgency), it might be premature to bet that losing the chance to host a particular cultural festival in one city five years from now will have any noticeable impact on public support for Brexit or Britain’s negotiators.

So perhaps the shift in stance is at least partly sincere: perhaps the Commission, faced with a flurry of disputes in our own press about ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexits, dragged its feet until the bids had actually come in. Unable to wait any longer, the bureaucracy may simply have applied its understanding of the rulebook because of a lack of political instruction from above, while leaders and negotiators wrangle over money.

In February I suggested that the EU might prove indecisive in its cultural response to Brexit: whether to embrace a chance to keep Britain within a wider sphere of cultural influence or to define itself more strongly in contrast with the Anglophone world. It has certainly been slow to come to a decision, and that decision indicates a direction of travel but by no means the final crystallisation of a post-Brexit cultural policy. The EU would like to associate itself with European identity, with the great historic narratives of European civilisation – and that takes more than an interpretation of Decision 445/2014/EU.

For the UK, this episode has been an annoyance and for some cities a likely waste of money (though only one bid could have been successful anyway); but if the Foreign Secretary was right and there was goodwill to be gained, then some of it has probably come our way already. Perhaps the timing of this development will even win us a little more at a crucial moment, if anyone on the continent notices. Ultimately, while a Capital of Culture can enjoy a boost to tourism and funding, cultural ties depend on much broader exchanges of art and language and ideas. If you want to see a capital of international culture, never mind the EU’s imprimatur: just look at Hollywood.