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How a 'hard' Brexit might affect the arts and culture

Stefan Dege als
October 26, 2018

When the Theaterlabor Bielefeld launched its "Cafe Europa," there was no talk yet Great Britain leaving the EU. Now people involved in the cultural scene are wondering about what effect a Brexit would have on artists.

people writhing on the floo
Image: Theaterlabor Bielefeld

In Scotland, more precisely on the stage of the "Leith Theatre" in Edinburgh, the curtain rises on November 10 for The Last Days of Mankind (see photo). The play by Karl Kraus has seldom been more topical. The Austrian wrote his drama between 1915 and 1922 as a "tragedy in five acts," in which he addressed the inhumanity and absurdity of war. The play shows where political conflict can lead.

Conflicted is also an apt description for the state of affairs between the European Commission and the British government.

Negotiations over a Brexit deal are stagnating. Will it be possible to reasonably sort out the European-British relationship for the period after the official withdrawal date of March 29, 2019? There's reason to be skeptical. The German Cultural Council has called it a "mess," especially since cultural issues have not yet been negotiated at all. "We have grounds for being nervous," Olaf Zimmermann, the Council's managing director, told Deutsche Welle. "The less regulated it is, the more difficult it becomes for everyone."

"Cafe Europa" theater project at stake

Edinburgh's "Leith Theatre" cooperates with the Theaterlabor Bielefeld in the "Cafe Europa" project, as do other theaters from Poland, France, Serbia, Ireland and Ukraine. In the event of a "hard" Brexit — a British exit without a formal treaty — "Cafe Europa" might no longer exist, at least not as a cooperative project between theaters from seven different countries. After such a Brexit, Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom, would no longer belong to it.

"Kraus' literary work was perfect itself for this pan-European project," said Bielefeld Theater director Christian Müller, "because the Austrian cosmopolitan depicted an image of horror of truly European dimensions."

Brexit  cartoon by Axel Scheffler
Image: Axel Scheffler

Apart from Edinburgh and Bielefeld, performances of The Last Days of Mankind are planned for Poland, as well as live broadcasts to Ireland and France. Everyone knows that when the curtain falls, the narrow vote in favor of Brexit of June 23, 2016 will continue to apply.

EU funding would dry up

Theaters, museums and other cultural institutions in the United Kingdom will have to reckon with significant financial cuts. Europe's cultural funding — currently €1.46 billion ($1.69 billion) for the period 2014 to 2020 — will mean that British applicants will be left empty-handed. Currently, money comes from EU funds for cross-border cultural and film projects; the EU program in question is called "Creative Europe." In addition, structural subsidies from Brussels amount to billions of euros, which would be eliminated in the event of a "hard" Brexit.

Not only EU countries, but altogether 43 eligible countries benefit from EU culture subsidies. Consultants such as Sophia Hodge help people tap into this source of funding. But right now, her "Creative Europe Desk" in Bonn is being bombarded with questions. It is still unclear under what conditions Great Britain will leave the EU, Hodge pointed out. "Until then, we are taking a sober approach to the situation — and are not panicking!" Cultural organizers are still being encouraged to plan with British cooperation partners.

Angela Kaya,
Angela Kaya of the Goethe Institue LondonImage: Goethe-Institut London/Carolyne Locher

Frustration rises in the British cultural scene

The closer Brexit approaches, the greater the frustration in the British art and cultural scene, said Angela Kaya, outgoing director of the Goethe Institute in London. Kaya, who is moving on to Athens, was already skeptical at the beginning of the Brexit negotiations a good two years ago. Meanwhile, division in the areas of business, politics, sports, culture and education has deepened even further, Kaya said in an interview with DW. The cultural industry — consisting of film, the art trade and the television market — amounts to 84.1 billion pounds (€94.7 billion or $108 billion) in the British economy. According to a study by the non-governmental Creative Industries Federation (CIF), Europe is England's largest cultural export market.

An unregulated Brexit, that much is clear, would close this market. But Germany's music industry would also feel the consequences, said Rene Houareau, managing director of law and politics at the Bundesverband Musikindustrie (Federal Association of the Music Industry). "What does this mean for music companies, authors, artists, their works and products?" he ponders in the magazine Politik und Kultur published by the German Cultural Council. The manager's warning: "The main problem with Brexit is legal uncertainty — especially concerning property rights such as copyrights."

Artists and students feel the impact

What Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK and president of the British Publishers Association, said recently at the Frankfurt Book Fair, seems like calculated optimism: "I'm sure that there will ultimately be some kind of deal." Both sides would have too much to lose if Brexit ended in chaos, he noted.

Installation Between Bridges von Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans' installation "Between Bridges"Image: Getty Images/J. Spicer

But to be prepared for any eventuality, his publishing company has been playing through various scenarios in recent months. "In my opinion, free choice of workplace is very important," Redmayne said. HarperCollins UK employs many people from EU countries "whom we do not want to sacrifice under any circumstances."

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmanns and author and illustrator Axel Scheffler (who co-created the Gruffelo character) are also on pins and needles about Brexit negotiations these days.

Both are Germans and star artists who live and work, at least part-time, in London and have fought hard against British withdrawal from the EU in interviews, drawings and on posters. In vain. They too would be affected should labor mobility between the EU and England abruptly end.

"London is one of the most important art locations in the world," Olaf Zimmermann of the German Cultural Council stressed. "We have to sort things out, even if Britain no longer belongs to the EU." The same applies to educational exchanges and young EU citizens studying in the UK. "Of course, you can also study there as a non-EU citizen," Zimmermann said, "but not only is that much more complicated to organize, it's much more expensive!"

Europe, said the Culture Council spokesman, must not simply write off Britain now. "Culture in particular offers a great opportunity to maintain connections where it is no longer possible in the economic sphere," he pointed out. Should the Brexit negotiations between the EU Commission and the British government fail, the nation states would be called upon to act. "Then the German government would have to make bilateral agreements, also in the area of culture."

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