Where is culture's champion?

By Patrick Kelly

European news isn’t of much interest to our media, unless it contains the word Brexit. So you could have measured the coverage of the EU’s plans for its budget, (which we will still be contributing to, regardless of what happens on March 2019) with a microscope. Inevitably there was little or no reference to the culture element of that budget.

But consider this - the European Commission is proposing a whopping 27% increase in the EU culture budget for the next six-year funding round.

That will take support for creative and cultural projects up to €1.9bn, culture getting €650m and the media sub-programme, which includes film, some €1.2bn. Ultimately, the final decision on this lies with the 27 leaders on the European Council, who in traditional fashion, will eventually negotiate through the night, with an array of last-minute buy-offs, compromises and concessions to secure a unanimous vote. So the final figure may be lower.

But it’s worth remembering that the other power broker in the triumvirate at Brussels, the European Parliament which signs off the final budget, is four square behind the Commission, with speaker Antonio Tajani saying that “culture, more than our economy, is the glue which holds Europe together and must be the starting point of our efforts to revitalise our Union”.

Of course, the Commission’s thinking is that a budget boost will underline culture’s “crucial role fostering diverse and inclusive societies” and support for the free movement of professionals in the cultural and creative sector is a “way of improving the EU’s cross-border cultural performance”. If that’s the kind of EU claptrap that has you reaching for your Brexit badge, then consider these hard facts: the cultural and creative sectors provide more than 12 million full-time jobs (7.5 % of the EU’s work force), and create approximately €509bn in value added to GDP (5.3 % of the EU’s total GVA). In the UK creative industries account for 5% of total GVA, while the car industry is five times smaller at 1%. Yet guess which industry’s monthly sales figures are the subject of breathless reporting every month.

National governments from Berlin to Belarus are also boosting their individual cultural investment. German culture minister Monika Grütters has increased the budget for her department by 38% since she took office back in 2013. Compare that to the feeble performance of our plethora of culture secretaries over the last ten years.

Grütters says that culture is what defines Germany as a democracy and investing in it is a way of protecting the gains that German society has made in the last 50 years. So what is it that we don’t get? Why do we measure our economic health on the basis of how many people bought a new Toyota last month? Why do we not notice that the most successful economy in Europe is also the one that invests most in its cultural success? It is not as if we aren’t good at this stuff. It’s ironic that just as we are turning our backs on all this and abandoning all that ”culture nonsense” in favour of blue passports and cheaper cod and chips, recent figures show that the UK’s share of EU culture funding has been increasing, and actually grew by a third in the year following the Brexit vote. Thirty-five of our best creative, cultural and heritage organisations were awarded a combined €3.2m in funding from 2016-17. Did you miss the press release from the culture minister lauding this achievement? No, you didn’t – there wasn’t one.

Barely a day passes without some minister praising the export earnings of the Royal Shakespeare Company, yet how many of them would write to their constituents saying they had just been to a fine performance of King Lear, as opposed to having their picture taken in a hard hat at the local car factory?

The fact that European arts organisations were willing to combine with UK artists to lever in that Creative Europe cash shows how much our expertise is still valued in this field, despite the UK being half out the exit door of the EU. But make no mistake, when Brexit happens, the EU funds will disappear and so, eventually, will the co-operation with artists from Europe. Why will they bother with the bureaucratic barriers our exit will inevitably put up to our participation? Mrs May was willing to make as yet unknown reassurance to carmakers that Brexit Britain would still treasure them, the Chancellor is going into bat for the financial services industry in his negotiations with his EU counterparts, but where is the political champion for the creative and cultural industries? Mr Hancock, are you there?

Simon Tait is away

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