Money clashes with identity in ‘Brexit’ debate over culture

31 January 2017 9:56am

17 May 2016. By Lewis Crofts.

Some in the pro-“Brexit” camp claim the EU is trying to impose European norms on the bloc’s states, extinguishing rich individual cultures along the way.

But defending national culture amounts to more than an ethereal debate about identity and sovereignty: It is closely linked to making money from a country’s cultural output. And Britain’s movie, music and fashion industries could stand to lose out if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Culture is an all-encompassing term that for some anti-EU campaigners means Brussels shouldn’t meddle in Somerset cider-making, the import and export of oil paintings, or tax breaks for filmmakers wearing horn-rimmed glasses.

The “out” campaign can pounce on EU rhetoric about “increasing European citizens’ sense of belonging to a common cultural area” to back claims that Brussels is throwing a pall over the varied tapestry of European cultures.

Britain — as all other countries in Europe — should be free to foster its own culture and not have to fend off norms imposed by Brussels, they argue.

For Harriet Bridgeman, a Vote Leave board member and managing director of the Artists Collecting Society, EU laws governing free competition and restricting state funding have curbed the freedom of national governments to support the arts. Associations such as the British Film Institute and Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television have meanwhile lined up to oppose EU action that might affect movie distribution models.

But there is a clear distinction between arguments against the EU’s alleged cultural normalization, Europe’s legislative agenda, and the EU’s deep-pocketed funding of cultural projects, most notably for moviemaking.

All are conflated and none is as simple as it seems.


Money is hardly the only measure of success for cultural projects. It might even be a poor measuring stick, considering the millions made by movies and music that critics regularly berate.

But Britain is a nation that exports its cultural output more than others, and funding and distribution models are key to that success.

The Remain campaign says the UK is the second-largest exporter of television in the world, worth 1.2 billion pounds ($1.7 billion) in 2012. It also ranks second in design and music.

For those Britons who support staying in the bloc, this is not just down to Britain’s talent pool but also to its EU membership. And what counts here is the EU’s flagship Creative Europe project — worth 1.46 billion euros ($1.65 billion) for the years 2014-2020.

The Remain campaign estimates that UK companies bagged 37 million pounds of that funding over the first five years of the program. And the rollcall of movie productions that have benefited from EU funding is notable. Think “Carol,” “The Iron Lady, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech,” to name but a few.

But for the “out” campaign, this is a false argument. It’s wrong to say that a “Brexit” would turn off the money tap altogether. For one thing, companies from non-EU countries can access the funds in the union’s flagship program. What’s more, the UK government would have no interest in abandoning its world-class cultural industries.

Some farmers have a similar worry about leaving the EU and seeing the end to funds from the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Pro-“Brexit” groups stress that the UK government would continue to fund both — farms as well as films. Better still, the UK would be free from edicts telling it how much it can spend, to whom and in what way, they say.

For lack of numbers at this stage, some in filmmaking and farming are concerned about how much of the pot would be left for them once the EU money dries up. But one thing is already clear: Programs such as the European Capitals of Culture — currently Donostia-San Sebastián in Spain and Wrocław in Poland — wouldn’t benefit British cities if the UK left.

This won’t be a reason on its own for citizens to vote Leave or Remain. But in 2008 Liverpool was the anointed city and saw 9.7 million visitors to the city — an increase of 34 percent — generating 753.8 million pounds for the economy, according to research program Impacts 08.


In commercial industries, EU legislation is usually the target of those campaigning for the UK to leave the union.

Currently, filmmakers are waging a fierce battle against an EU probe into territorial licensing, saying the investigation threatens the future of movie distribution. Rebecca O’Brien, the production partner of director Ken Loach, said earlier this year that the EU action could make independent filmmaking “collapse.”

But falling out with EU laws and their enforcement isn’t the same as wanting to leave the EU or benefiting from other EU policies.

The EU’s cultural funding program supported Loach’s films “Jimmy’s Hall” and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006.


Culture as an industry is unlikely to make the difference when Brits go to the polls on June 23.

But citizens would be wise to reject the argument that the EU big-foots national cultures. It doesn’t. The EU wants to “highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe” — a quote from the same source as above: EU website on Capitals of Culture program.

Claims that support for the film industry would dry up after “Brexit” are equally questionable.

But the EU support programs as they exist — be they for filmmaking, book translators or culture in towns and regions — are some of the success stories of Europe and would be hard to replace in the same depth and breadth.

Brexit Special Report