1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: Brexit is culture's wake-up call

Dege Stefan Kommentarbild App
Stefan Dege
June 24, 2016

The British have voted to leave the European Union - and now the cultural sector is suddenly waking up to the potential consequences of a Brexit. And they're right to be worried, says DW's culture editor, Stefan Dege.

Tribute to David Bowie, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Bilan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Bilan

David Bowie might be rolling in his grave now. The rock singer from Great Britain spent three years of his influential young adulthood in West Berlin, where he found inspiration for his most exciting albums, including "Heroes." That was back in the 1970s.

Today, reunified Berlin is the capital of Germany. It's hip and cosmopolitan, beloved by artists. But Bowie? If he'd lived here in a post-Brexit age, he might have had to leave Berlin without a visa to stay.

In a globalized world, this scenario sounds absurd. But it is now a realistic possibility - just one of many negative consequences of Britain's vote to leave the EU. It impacts everyone - business, trade and defense policies as well as foreign relations; it will also affect the cultural world as well.

Will the British music and film industries lose their open access to their most important market, Europe? Will museums be able to continue their cultural exchanges without being blocked due to European customs barriers? Will Brussels discontinue the EU's cultural support provided to the UK? All of these are examples that show that people on both sides of the Channel will suffer the consequences of the UK's departure from the EU.

Drifting towards isolation

Museums and theaters will directly feel the impact, as EU funds for support are only given out for cooperations. Without the EU's contribution, funds might lack for cross-border exhibitions or theater projects.

Without the support of a grant from the Erasmus program, German school students will no longer be able to afford a cultural exchange year in Great Britain. Cultural networks will suffer as well: a French curator may now have little hope of obtaining a British partner for an exhibition; it might become less likely that a Danish painter may find a home in a London museum.

As a consequence, contacts will slowly fade away; relationships will be put on ice. The impact of this atmosphere of isolation is not only on paper, but also in people's heads.

Stefan Dege, Copyright: DW
DW culture editor Stefan DegeImage: DW/K. Dahmann

That was to be expected, even though people avoided talking about it. Why didn't we hear more voices of protest against Brexit from European painters, theater and museum organizers, musicians and cultural managers?

Apart from some 300 British celebrities who had positioned themselves publically against the Leave option, very few others had voiced their concerns.

Now many are realizing that the results of this referendum could have fatal consequences. It is too late for protest. The damage has been done; it is now time to pick up the pieces.

Shared values

There are many pieces to pick up. However, one consoling fact might help us to start out: Great Britain and the rest of Europe are connected by much more than business and finance, much more than disagreements about migration policies and anger against regulations set by Brussels.

Culturally speaking, the UK is and will remain a part of Europe. From human rights to democracy and the rule of law up to tolerance and religion, Britain exhibits solid shared values with the rest of Europe. With that, other things can be worked on - if only the political will is there and politics don't throw culture under the bus.

An analysis about the Brexit referendum cannot be written without addressing the fact that the return of nationalism is not a uniquely British phenomenon. Euro-skeptics, those opposed to freedom, who have forgotten history and are intolerant of others are simply known by another name in other places: in France, the Front National, in Germany, the AfD, and in Poland by the acronym PiS.

Whoever plays the nationalist card is rejecting the unifying abilities of music, literature, art and free thought. Brexit is a signal to culture: whoever wants freedom has to fight its enemies. And as David Bowie might have said, "We can beat them. We can be heroes!"

Have something to add about the cultural impacts of the Brexit vote? Share your views in the comments below. The comment thread closes automatically 24 hours after this article's publication.