Chris Burn: Culture debacle does not bode well for Brexit

Widespread dismay and anger greeted the news that British cities including Leeds are to be prevented from becoming European Capital of Culture in 2023 by the European Commission, particularly given the vast amounts of time, energy and public money already spent on the prospective bids.

PIC: Simon Hulme

But where the finger of blame is pointed appears to largely depend on how people voted in the European Union referendum – Remainers suggest the decision is a logical consequence of voting for Brexit, while Leavers say it is the perfect example of the type of petty behaviour of the EU which prompted Britain’s decision to quit in the first place.

A close examination of the facts shows it is actually fair to say both sides have a point; while by the rules it is right that Britain’s forthcoming departure from the EU is incompatible with participating in the Capital of Culture competition, the manner in which the Commission has handled the matter has been deeply unfair.

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Way back in 2013, at a time when the idea of Britain leaving the European Union appeared a distant and unlikely prospect, civic leaders in Leeds floated the idea of the city entering the running to become the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

They were inspired by the example of the huge success enjoyed by Liverpool on the back of it holding the title in 2008; an accolade credited with helping that city enjoy a £750m economic boost and increasing the numbers of residents who said they were proud to live there by 82 per cent.

In 2014, it was confirmed by EU officials that the UK and Hungary would share the 2023 European Capital of Culture title and by March 2015, Leeds councillors formally backed making a bid. Work began on putting together a submission ahead of formally registering interest in December 2016 and submitting finalised plans this year.

The situation was obviously thrown into major doubt by the referendum result in June 2016 but civic leaders say they sought advice from the Government, who in turn spoke to the European Commission and they were advised the bid should progress.

While the Department of Culture, Media and Sport did warn the UK’s involvement in the competition could be affected by Brexit negotiations, they still believed the competition would run as normal – an assertion backed up by the European Commission’s website confirming up until this week that 2023 was the UK’s turn to host.

Since then, it is reported around £1m has been spent on the Leeds bidding process, including around £200,000 of public money.

The Leeds submission in October was marked with a party called The Big Send Off, celebrating the hard work of the many community groups and cultural organisations who had put a huge amount of time and effort into creating a concept and ideas they believed had a chance of securing the title.

But after submitting an 80-page bid document and just days before meeting a panel of judges, the rug was pulled from under the Leeds 2023 team by the Commission’s shock announcement that because of Brexit, the UK cities who had put their names forward would not be allowed to compete.

By the strict application of the rules governing the concept, the European Commission is entirely within its rights to act as it has.

While it has been pointed out that non-EU countries such as Turkey, Iceland and Norway have previously held the honour, the crucial difference is that they qualified for the scheme under a process which allows members of the European Economic Area, which makes use of the single market, and candidates to join the bloc to participate.

Those exemptions do not apply to the UK and how it intends to interact with the EU after Brexit takes place in 2019.

As such, those who say that British cities losing their right to participate in the Capital of Culture process – and with it, the gigantic financial and social benefits it brings – is a logical consequence of the type of departure from the EU the UK is pursuing are correct.

However, the European Commission should not be let off the hook when it comes to the appalling timing of the announcement, which appears calculated to humiliate. Since Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January it has been clear Britain intends to leave the single market.

If those in Brussels in charge of the Capital of Culture process considered this to disqualify UK cities, that should have been communicated promptly rather than waiting for 11 months – time in which those vast amounts of public money has spent.

The news caught the bidding cities and the Government completely by surprise and it appears there had been no attempt to warn those involved in the UK that this U-turn was on the cards.

Ultimately, this row and this issue is a relatively minor one in the incredibly complex Brexit process. But wherever your view on where the fault lies in this situation, the simple fact is Leavers and Remainers in Yorkshire have lost out as a result.

The Brexit divorce is only just beginning and this sad tale does not bode well for the consequences and accompanying bitterness yet to come.