The Impact of Brexit on International Cultural Relations in the European Union

Stuart MacDonald
Oct 2, 2017 · 5 min read

So much has been written, tweeted, argued about Brexit, and so much noise and heat have been generated, that it seems foolhardy to try to take a step back and try to analyse coolly some of what is actually going on.

If analysis is foolhardy, it is downright reckless to try to predict impacts when we are all in a fog of political uncertainty. As I write, today, the outcome of the Brexit process is no easier to predict than it was in May, when the research for this report was completed.

Events in the EU and the UK are, however, moving at pace. Within the last week:

  • On 26 September, President Macron called for common EU policies on defence, asylum and tax, and the formation of European universities. He promised to play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
  • On 29 September, Theresa May met Angela Merkel in Estonia. There were some encouraging signs of progress on citizens’ rights post-Brexit.
  • Yesterday, the Catalan independence referendum.
  • Today, fundamental splits over the approach to Brexit in the UK Cabinet…

The wider context is one of ideological turmoil and contestation. Debates rage about populism, cosmopolitanism, nationalism, neoliberalism, and multiculturalism rage…

However, given all this heat, uncertainty and ideological strife, it is all the more important to see what can be said, in relation to international cultural relations — a “sector” that is vital for the future creativity, innovation and prosperity of both the UK and the EU.

The report does not try to do everything. It tries to find a way through the fog by starting to map out a description of the current position, to form, as far as possible, a baseline that can be used to assess likely impacts both in terms of numbers and in policy (political and qualitative) aspects.

It does not try to talk about everything. Largely leaving political science aside, it identifies “international cultural relations” in terms of defined areas of activity (education, collaboration on research and innovation, cultural and creative industries, exchange programmes for young people, tourism) where there are existing EU-funded structures of support for exchange, transnational cooperation, and the development of a shared cultural understanding.

It then considers what the impact would be if these structures were no longer available to the UK. In other words, it attempts to step back in order to take a cool look at who will be affected by Brexit, what the costs could be, and, to try to sketch out what the future could hold. Is there actually an opportunity here?

So what does the research done for the report tell us about the likely impact of Brexit? The headline results will not surprise anyone:

  • Young people will bear most of the brunt of Brexit, especially if Erasmus+ and other exchange programmes cease. There will be fewer opportunities for young people from the UK to visit, study, and develop cultural awareness of other EU countries, and vice versa. Young people from other EU countries will be more affected as more young people go to the UK to study tha. the other way round.
  • There will be less interaction between higher education systems (faculty, students) in the UK and the EU. This matters for research excellence and innovation. The UK and Germany lead the way in the EU’s research and knowledge economies. Without the UK, the EU’s capacity for creativity and innovation-led economic growth will be diminished.
  • A reduction in cultural impacts are in some ways more ambiguous and potentially more long-lasting. It is hard to quantify the impact on culture and creative industries, but reduced free movement of talent, trade barriers, regulatory uncertainties, reduced opportunities for collaboration, and reduced opportunities for sharing new ideas will almost certainly lead to lower horizons and narrower visions. Again, the negatives will probably impact more on other EU countries — UK cultural and creative actors currently engage more with the English speaking world than with other EU countries.
  • In the specific area of the practice of international cultural relations, there is undoubtedly a risk of divergent approaches being taken by the UK and the EU. This could lead to competition for attention and soft power. There are also risks from reduced collaboration between the British Council and EU National Institutes of Culture in the context of EUNIC’s role in the EU’s Cultural Diplomacy strategy.

The eventual outcome will of course depend on the success of the Brexit negotiations. There are many remaining uncertainties. A lot has happened, and keeps on happening. What is clear, is that the UK and the EU have shared concerns in areas such as security, the need to combat the more extreme forms of populism, exclusivist identity politics, and sectarianism, which will require new frameworks for collaboration.

So, are there any reasons to be cheerful? Somewhat paradoxically, the research indicates that there are. The Brexit process has shone a light on the EU (in the UK) in a new way. People may not have changed their minds much about Brexit since the referendum in 2016, but they certainly are better informed about the EU. While some Brexiteers seem prepared to pay any price for Brexit, other voices are seeking positive ways ahead. There are tentative indications that some common sense may be breaking out. However there are still major risks.

The research also indicates that we need new models for international cultural relations that will be fit for purpose in the post-Brexit world. The political economy of cultural relations in Europe needs a radical overhaul of current behavioural norms, assumptions, and structures if the downsides of Brexit are to be avoided.

Firstly, it is essential, for all our sakes, that there is no innovation downside from Brexit. Our prosperity and future success depend on creativity and innovation. Both of these require support for collaboration across borders for the common good, surely the central goal of any normative approach to international cultural relations. This is not “science diplomacy”, or a question of EU versus the UK, it is science itself — knowledge should know no borders

Secondly, cultural practitioners were the most ardently pro-EU group in the UK before the referendum. They were, however, often out of touch with their Brexit-voting, older, less cosmopolitan, less well educated publics. The arts need, in short, to come out of their bubble and re-engage.

Thirdly, international cultural relations in the EU is often conceptualised as a a contributor to “ever closer union”, rather than as a benefit to people. The challenge of Brexit is to create enabling frameworks for policy and practice which have a clear vision of who they are for. If young people are not to be disadvantaged in the global 21st century, they need help to develop global, not only European, understanding. There is an opportunity to focus collaboratively, post-Brexit, on the global awareness young people will need and want. This will indeed require flexibility and imagination.

If Brexit teaches us one thing, it is that we need to challenge our assumptions and traditional ways of thinking about international cultural relations. The research did not provide all the answers, but it did identify areas for focused attention. As to what the eventual impact will be, the jury is out.

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