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Manick Govinda: Why UK arts should vote for a Brexit

Photo: Sutterstock/Gts
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The general view of the leave campaign by the arts sector is that it is isolationist, jingoist and nationalist, but there are a growing number of artists supporting Brexit who are a far cry from those stereotypes. For me, the greater argument to leave is a moral and philosophical one based on the premises of democracy and government accountability to the people. A technocratic, supranational bureaucracy such as the EU could never be for the people, by the people or of the people. That’s an article for elsewhere, so let me focus on the arts and culture for the purposes of this piece.

Libby Penn: Why remaining in Europe is the right choice for UK arts

The EU is a cultural fortress. While EU artists and performers have freedom of movement across member states, let us not forget how non-EU artists are second-class citizens within this system. As a steering group member of the civil liberties group the Manifesto Club, I was a lead campaigner against the Home Office’s visa restrictions on non-EU artists and we demanded that the government review and relax some of the most draconian restrictions that had ever been imposed on non-EU artists and performers.

The UK government listened to the arts sector, and created a couple of important strands in EU immigration policy: the introduction of a Tier 1 visa for exceptionally talented artists (across art forms and media) as well as those demonstrating exceptional promise. This scheme is managed by Arts Council England on behalf of the Home Office. The UK government also introduced the Permitted Paid Engagement visitor route, for which our Visiting Artists Campaign fought fiercely, that now allows hundreds of small non-EU groups and individual artists to visit and tour around the UK and receive payment, within a one-month period.

Many of my European colleagues in the arts are fearful that their future in the UK may be under threat if we leave the EU. Yet there is no prospect whatsoever that they would be sent back home, as the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 would come into play. It contains articles that are based on ‘acquired rights’, which individuals build up over time and hold, despite any changes in future treaties enacted by our nation or any other European nation.

The EU legitimises a system of discrimination against the many other visiting artists and arts professionals from non-EU countries who are denied the privilege of free movement. We managed to petition our government and win some significant concessions of greater flexibility within the UK’s points-based immigration system for non-EU artists. Who is to say that we cannot do the same for our fellow visiting EU creatives by arguing for wider reform? This is not the time for artists and performers to remain complacent about the status quo. As the American novelist James Baldwin wrote: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take.”

The second biggest argument against leaving the EU is that it funds many European cultural networks, and UK arts organisations benefit from this. This is true, but it needs to be put into perspective. In 2015 the UK government paid
£13 billion into the EU budget, and EU spending on the UK was £4.5 billion. So the UK’s net contribution was estimated at about £8.5 billion. Imagine how much stronger our arts and cultural scene in the UK would be with just 1% of that sum?

International cultural exchange and collaboration is not dependent on EU diktat. The UK has a proud history of internationalism, through its Commonwealth and relationships with many other parts of the world, and these have brought world-class and grassroots cross-cultural relationships to our shores. The British Council and Arts Council England’s international funding programmes and schemes could be strengthened, with far less bureaucracy and paperwork than EU funding demands, to facilitate greater internationalism in the arts, self-determined by artists and arts groups, without having to jump through overbearing EU rules and bean-counting criteria.

It is time to rethink what should replace the EU. My proposition is that a voluntary association of independent and equal sovereign states be developed in its place.

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