When Britain voted to leave the EU, it didn’t necessarily follow that we’d be kicked out of its European Capital of Culture scheme – given that it aimed to be exactly that, rather than an EU Capital of Culture. After all Istanbul, Reykjavík and Stavanger all qualified and all won. There were some ominous signs: a few weeks ago, the European Parliament voted to amend the rules the scheme should be open to candidate states and EEA nations - butno mention was made of former members. So Iceland would be included in consideration for European status, but Britain excluded.
It looked like a mean-hearted attempt to punish Britain for leaving, but could it really be so? Could it include Turkey which (as we were assured during the referendum campaign) is never realistically going to join the EU but exclude Britain? Common sense suggested not: the capital of culture idea was a friendly, inclusive scheme designed to underline the cultural divergence of a continent, not a bureaucratic bloc. And when British cities bid for 2023 it sent out a friendly message: our citizens may have decided that the EU is not right for us, but we stand ready to be good Europeans, engaged in the wider family of Europe.
But the European Commission has now said that Britain would not be eligible – a decision made only after Dundee, Leeds, Belfast/Derry, Milton Keynes and Nottingham spent time and money preparing bids, some of which cost up to £500,000. The competition is just a bit of fun, but being a lot of people are getting very wound up. The Little Englanders and the EU hardliners, who have a lot in common, are both delighted by the decision - in their own ways. The former see proof of the perfidy of Brussels: they maliciously raised the hopes of Dundonians only to crush them at a disgracefully late period! So why did we even bother applying? Why not leave the Eurocrats to their idiotic game? Britain can name its own capital of culture, we don't need anyone in Brussels doing it for us.
The EU hardliners are also delighted: rules are rules! No, even better: law is law! It’s open to prospective member states and EEA, and Britain has chosen to be in neither of these things - so we deserve our fate! And what did these deluded Brexiteers expect? Look at how they protest and stamp their feet when confronted with the implications of their idiotic decision! If the people of Milton Keynes wanted to be a European culture capital then why did they vote for Brexit? You can’t leave a club, then be annoyed that you’re not still being treated as a member. Ha!
As a proud Europhile and a reluctant convert to the Brexit cause, I can see why we applied for the 2023 scheme. We are not leaving Europe, a geographical impossibility. But we must now engage in other ways. I’m keen that Britain does more than its fair share of defence collaboration, that our universities remain a resource for the continent and the world, that we stay in other groups where common endeavours make sense. If the EU announces trade sanctions, I’d like for Britain to lend its economic power to those sanctions.I’m an internationalist, keen that Britain collaborates with other nations in the many areas where it makes sense to do so.
The EU started off as a general collaborative project, fuelled by the desire of a great many nations to form a trade block and work together in other mutually convenient ways. But it then mutated into a would-be federal government, a project that goes against the grain of Europe's liberal traditions. Marina Wheeler has described how the various European charters of “rights” started to distort the British legal system; internal No10 audits revealed that a third of the work being done in government involved carrying out EU orders. There were calls for an EU president, a common foreign policy, common tax, a common army: it had over-reached and fundamentally was not what Britain voted for in 1975. So we voted to leave, but the goodwill remains. Britain stands ready to help, to engage with, to share endeavours with our fellow Europeans. And for many of us, Brexit was a decision to find a better way of engaging with Europe. The old way - where we stayed in the EU, complained and vetoed - wasn't really working.
So this is why the Capital of Culture rejection is important politically. It shows the EU saying: no, if you want to be part of the European family, then you need to suck up to these directives of ours. No "cherry picking". Either we all collaborate, and you obey these orders, or we don’t – and you’re out in the cold. So if your people want their town to be considered as a European Capital of Culture? Tough. They should have thought of that before they voted for Brexit.
This, at least, is a strand of opinion in the EU. There is another strand, that wishes to keep Britain as an ally after Brexit, that does want to protect a sense of European cohesion irrespective of EU membership – and thinks that ex-member states should be given at least as important a status as would-be member states.
We’re not hearing much along those lines right now, which is perhaps as to be expected at this stage in negotiations, but I hope it will reassert itself. Meanwhile Britain ought to keep extending the hand of friendship and co-operation, making clear we stand ready to be the EU's greatest and most powerful ally. And that we will always be, by custom and trade, a proud member of the European family.
Meanwhile, we’ll always have Eurovision.