Don’t believe that the arts world is united against Brexit – it’s not!

Don’t believe that the arts world is united against Brexit – it’s not!

How should the creative sector engage with Brexit? The Creative Industries Federation has published a manifesto demanding that Brexit negotiations prioritise the creative industries. Fair enough, perhaps, but noises coming out of the arts sector remain resistant to Brexit, to the point, even, of overturning the Referendum vote by insisting on a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ – i.e. retaining membership of the European single market with its concomitant obligations to accept freedom of movement.

A series of crucial public debates, co-produced by Invoke Democracy Now!, New Narratives and the Institute of Ideas Arts & Society Forum, and hosted by Rich Mix, is challenging the arts sector to think harder about their commitment to the EU.

At the first debate on 28th March, a packed audience listened to Munira Mirza (former Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture at the Greater London Authority and co-founder of Change Britain), Jo Glanville (Director, English PEN), Manick Govinda (head of artist advisory services, Artsadmin), Mark Ball (outgoing CEO of the London International Festival of Theatre) and Sarah Peace (artist, aka Eca Eps) debate freedom of movement, immigration controls and the European vision. The discussion, unsurprisingly, was a heated one.

Jo Glanville and Mark Ball both accepted the democratic mandate but expressed deep anxieties about the consequences of Brexit, arguing that the EU has been good for the arts, allowing arts organisations to flourish in an open environment of cultural exchange. Jo Glanville claimed that “the consequences for the UK and for the arts potentially are calamitous because of the skills and the talent that we’re going to lose.”  She feared both that important rights to artists’ freedom of expression could be threatened without the protections offered by the European Convention on Human Rights, and that, in leaving the EU, Britain risked losing its global reach and authority.

Likewise, Mark Ball argued that many artists around the world saw Brexit as “a signal of UK being in retreat, less welcoming to artists moving around the world”. He fears that when we leave the EU, it is going to become more difficult for artists to get visas and work permits, and consequently they may be less inclined to work with British artists. Being in the EU represented a “will to live and work and create together… a shared dream,” he said.

But by no means was it all doom and gloom since the other speakers offered more optimistic scenarios for a post-Brexit future. Nigerian-born British artist, Sarah Peace explained how she bucked the pressure of her peers by voting Leave because she believes that Brexit “represents a wealth of new prospects for art practitioners from all around the world.” She thinks that Britain will thrive “by remaining open to international talent. It’s not closing the door on Europe. Rather it creates a level playing-field which attracts talent from all over the world.”

Manick Govinda has long campaigned for artists’ freedom of movement. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said how he thought Brexit will be good for artists because the EU “is an apparatus that fundamentally restricts freedom of movement for non-EU citizens. The EU has created a Fortress Europe.” He said: “It really does surprise me that a vast majority of artists in the UK wish to submit to EU rule over independence and national self-determination”, before going on to conclude that “we do need to think bigger, and increase movement and our reciprocal relationships with other countries. So why not Korea, India, Ghana, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, the Caribbean or the USA?”

Munira Mirza voted for Brexit but is “very positive about immigration.” Mass migration can be “a very good thing, bringing new talent, new ideas to the arts” but, she opined, free movement within the EU was discriminatory, at the expense of movement from countries outside the EU. More importantly, she argued that free movement within the EU “took away the democratic control of the people of the UK over who comes into their country. I do think that for immigration policy to be successful, it needs to have the consent of the people who live in that country.”  She sees Brexit as “an incredibly important opportunity to redesign the whole system, to make it much more responsive to the needs of artists, to the needs of academics, to have a different system.” She suggested immigration controls should provide for “fluidity of movement” with a system of visas specifically for artists which doesn’t discriminate against people from outside the EU.

As Mirza pointed out, all three panellists favouring Brexit at this single even came from ethnic minorities and that “a third of the total ethnic population of British voters voted for Brexit.” We have to “challenge the narrative that people who voted to leave are racist and xenophobic,” she asserted. Similarly, Peace pointed out that “the media has done a disservice to the public in suggesting that the British people, on the whole, are opposed to immigration. In reality, they have specific concerns about the volume, the pace, and specifically, about immigration from theocratic regimes.”

The audience were as divided as the panel, expressing strong feelings on the issues at stake. Click here to listen to the lively debate for yourself.

The next debate in this series will take place on Monday 8th May at 7pm at Rich Mix, London E1. Click here for further details.