Photo by Frank Noon

December 2016

The case for an Open Brexit

I head an organisation that builds international bridges for the UK, at a time when walls are coming back into fashion. The British Council was established 82 years ago in 1934 to improve the UK’s foreign relations and global reputation through cultural exchange. 

The result of the EU referendum has created a turbulent period for an organisation whose raison d’être is to create ties between the UK and the rest of the world. But the way we respond to the decision to leave the EU will determine whether it risks being a setback or a positive step forward. The shock of the news is fading, and the reality of the democratic decision is here to stay. 

Today, as we share the views of almost 40,000 young people across the G20 nations, it is clear that the EU referendum result has affected Britain’s standing, but it also offers new opportunities.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the data shows that the Brexit vote has had a negative impact on views of the UK among young people in the EU members of the G20. This is reflected in lower levels of trust and a reduction in their willingness to study and do business here. Whether this is a momentary blip, or the start of a greater decline will depend on how we conduct ourselves from now on. Perhaps more crucially, it will depend on whether we can simultaneously protect and grow cultural and educational relationships with European countries while leaving the EU’s political structures.

The data also illustrates that Brexit is having a positive impact on views in the Commonwealth and the rest of the G20 – with increases in perceptions of the UK as a global power. Overall, the UK remains well regarded. Young people in the G20 say it’s still the fourth most attractive country on the planet – no change from before the referendum. 

To protect this strong position, it is vital that the UK secures an Open Brexit - one that maintains and strengthens cultural and education ties with Europe, whilst investing more in new relationships around the world. We need to embrace the opportunities of the UK’s new global role whilst ensuring that we do not cut ourselves adrift from fruitful areas of collaboration. Our world class cultural sector promotes the UK’s influence abroad and reinforces our reputation as a creative, diverse and respectful society that is in turn globally respected. Our world class education sector is second to none and is the envy of others. Just look at our universities. Our science base is one of the most productive and most innovative. The strengthening of cultural, educational, and scientific cooperation, common human ties between the UK and countries of the EU, must be a top priority. 

An Open Brexit would put cultural relationships at the heart of both our new settlement with Europe, and pave the road to new trade deals around the world. The UK is poised to renegotiate not just its position with European nations, but its place in the world. To do this successfully we must realise that cultural ties do not rest on political and economic alliances – it is the other way around. They are a precursor, a catalyst and an accelerant to trust and ultimately trade. 

The mandate of the referendum to reduce political and economic ties is not a mandate to break down the cultural bridges that have been built across Europe over centuries. Now, more than ever, we must invest in these areas of cooperation.  In other words, we must build more bridges and no walls.

Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council

See also