How might Brexit affect attempts by the EU to define “European Culture”?

How might Brexit affect attempts by the EU to define “European Culture”?

Compared to finance, farms and fisheries, not much has yet been written about the role of cultural policy in Brexit. Proposals that 2018 should be the European Year of Cultural Heritage, however, promise to add a colourful backdrop to our exit negotiations. ‘European culture’ is symbolically important to the European project: how the EU pursues cultural policy in light of Brexit will indicate what kind of European identity it now aims to promote, and where we Anglo-Saxons and assorted Celts are expected to stand in relation to it.

Since (and to some extent even before) culture became an EU policy area under the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has sought to associate European culture with its schemes and institutions via the European Capital of Culture, the European Heritage Label, and so on. The idea of a common and particularly European culture and heritage lent EU expansion a rhetorical sense of manifest destiny both akin and opposed to nationalisms: that ever-closer union was not merely political but the realisation of a Europe that already existed in spirit. Into these works Brexit has thrown an enormous spanner.

The works, however, had already been getting gummed up since Turkish accession was first mooted: Asia Minor has an excellent historical claim to belong to European culture (indeed Thales of Miletus, traditionally considered the founder of Western philosophy, lived in a Greek colony in Anatolia), but one that has never been quite the same since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Debates began to take place about whether the EU should be ‘a Christian club’. The politics of migration in recent years has intensified questions about how modern Europe should relate to religious heritage, with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán arguing that ‘European identity is rooted in Christianity’ and migration policy should aim to keep things that way.

In the long term, therefore, Brexit is probably not the EU’s biggest cultural headache. The Government, and Leave campaigners during the referendum, have been keen to stress that we are leaving the EU, not leaving Europe. A vocal enthusiasm for our shared ties of European culture, be its roots classical or Christian or otherwise, should help to smooth the ruffled feathers of remaining EU member-states. The Foreign Secretary, that self-described ‘one-man melting pot’, certainly appears to think that cultural co-operation is an opportunity to reinforce our diplomatic ties with other European nations from outside the EU: Britain is working under the assumption that we will still host a European Capital of Culture in 2023, reportedly as a result of his intervention.

What is harder to predict is how the EU’s institutions will react. For people like Guy Verhofstadt, who has spoken of letting Britons opt to retain EU citizenship or even fast-tracking the UK back into the EU, a vision of European culture in which Britain remains an enthusiastic participant ought to have obvious tactical attractions: it promises to keep faith in spiritual Europe alive. Yet it would go rather incongruously with the punishment beating for which we are supposed to be lining up. Moreover, nature famously abhors a vacuum, and once we champions of ‘the Anglo-Saxon model’ have left the EU there will be other voices keen to fill the gap.

The EU has been indecisive about whether it wants to be a ‘Christian club’, and it may well prove indecisive about us Britons too. It cannot plausibly claim, even if it decides it would like to, that the UK until recently belonged to European culture but will soon lie outside it. Cultures and cultural change do not work like that. Yet we should not be surprised if a model of European identity gradually emerges which is more wholeheartedly Continental, which defines itself more pointedly against the Anglophone world, and which unrestrainedly interprets the history of the EU in light of Britain’s long-standing reputation for semi-detachment. The EU institutions have long worked to create associations between the EU, ‘Europe’ and European culture. Brexit threatens these efforts to forge a European identity in their image, and the forgers have an incentive to push back.

The EU cultural policies that actually emerge post-Brexit, and what they portend for relations with the UK, may have much to do with other states entirely: with whether Ukraine ultimately faces East or West, with how the EU presents itself in contrast with America, and with the ongoing saga of Turkish accession. We too belong historically to Christendom after all.