Image of Union Jack and EU flags
Britain’s place in European culture is as inextricable as our place in European history. Image ©

Creative commons, adapted from the original.

July 2017

British Council Chief Executive Sir Ciarán Devane introduces the findings of the British Council’s EU-UK Culture and Education Series.

It is difficult to make a case for collaboration in arts, culture and education in Europe amid a Brexit debate dominated by adversarial positions on trade, immigration and economics. 

But such a case needs to be made in a constructive and audible way. It is these quieter sectors which will underpin our future relationship with the continent, and ease fractious relationships as we break the political bonds that have accumulated in the 44 years since Britain joined the EEC. 

The British Council’s EU-UK Culture and Education Series gathered leaders of the education, science and research, arts and culture sectors from across Europe to discuss the future of collaboration in these fields between the UK and EU27 post-Brexit

The British Council’s EU-UK Culture and Education Series gathered leaders of the education, science and research, arts and culture sectors from across Europe to discuss the future of collaboration in these fields between the UK and EU27 post-Brexit.

As an organisation dedicated to cultural exchange it is our duty to look for areas of common interest, not points of departure. From the outset we planned to send the recommendations of the Series, drawn up by participants, to both sides of the Brexit negotiating table.

We wanted to help frame the relationship with Europe, putting educational and cultural exchange at the centre of the UK’s future European engagement and strengthening our connections across the continent.

We gathered together the heads of cultural institutions, scientific researchers, university vice chancellors, the heads of museums, orchestras and dance troupes. 

We mixed people from across the continent, the mayor of Cluj-Napoca, the executive director of the Royal Society, representatives from the Spanish Ministry of Education and French universities.

We had support from the Goethe-Institut, Institute Francais and Cervantes. Indeed the recommendations have subsequently been endorsed by the entire network of European national cultural institutes (EUNIC).

We listened to the voices of students and young people.

Culture operates on an alternative track to traditional politics and foreign policy. It is a track which maintains relationships between countries even during political turbulence. It is a track which becomes all the more important as we break away from the political ties of the EU

Our parallel approach to negotiations is proof of an idea we promote as an organisation: that culture operates on an alternative track to traditional politics and foreign policy. It is a track which maintains relationships between countries even during political turbulence. It is a track which becomes all the more important as we break away from the political ties of the EU.

Our consensual approach has already gained the ear of the European Parliament whose Cultural Committee has discussed the recommendations that have been drawn up by the participants in our Series.

Cross border consensus was what we sought from the very start. A clear set of priorities and policy recommendations for the future of the education, culture and science and research sectors after Britain leaves the EU.

The key priorities raised by leaders in these sectors across all 28 EU countries and beyond, subsequently endorsed by more than 400 signatures are:

  • Ensuring those in the education, culture and science sectors and young people involved in exchanges remain able to move easily between the UK and other EU countries, possibly in the form of a simple, cheap and easy to obtain ‘culture and education permit’; 
  • Guaranteeing residency rights for EU nationals currently living and working in the UK and vice-versa;
  • Continued UK participation in and contribution to multilateral programmes such as Erasmus+, Horizon 2020, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions and Creative Europe;
  • Engaging young people in future policy-making and offering every young person in the UK and other European countries the opportunity of an inter-cultural and international experience, through areas such as study, work, performance, research, language learning or exchanges.

The place of culture in Europe in this wide sense needs to be understood as being distinct from the EU. The British Council has been enabling cultural exchange on the continent for decades, long before the European Coal and Steel Community started us on the journey towards an economic and political union.

Britain’s place in European culture is as inextricable as our place in European history. While the EU has become the vehicle for projects of this nature – the exchange of science, education and arts – as prominent leave campaigners and remainers have both said, it would be a mistake to walk away from this type of cooperation in a desire to ‘take back control’.

These fields may have taken a backseat to talk of economics, trade deals and legal jurisdiction, but they should still be in the minds of negotiators. They are an important means of fuelling the creativity, innovation, and goodwill that leads to thriving trade and economic growth.

In the adversarial climate of negotiations, these recommendations represent a formerly quiet voice for cooperation between the peoples of Britain and Europe with solid, sensible suggestions for our future outside the EU.

Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive, British Council, with thanks to Chatham House 

See also