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If Brexit get their way, we’ll be making a swift exit from the EU, but that could have some serious implications for our European Capital of Culture bid…

It’s not just the economy and immigration that people should be thinking about when it comes to voting in the European Union referendum on Thursday 23rd March 2016. Right now, Yorkshire is a key battleground, with both sides honing in on our undecided voters, but in the run up to polling day, there’s a lot more for Leeds voters to contemplate, as the future of the city’s 2023 European Capital of Culture bid hangs in the balance.

What are the facts?

What Will Leeds Be Missing if it Doesn’t Get European Capital of Culture 2023?

The European Capital of Culture programme is a European Union project. So if the UK was to vote out of the union then straight away the city’s bid will come under question. It wouldn’t be an outright no, but there would definitely be some hoops to jump through to make it happen.

Non-EU members are allowed to participate in EU programmes as long as they fulfil certain criteria, but will the UK be willing to do so and will they be able to do it fast enough to make a difference? That isn’t a question we, or indeed anyone, can answer right now.

The current criteria outlines three inroads to the programme for countries outside the EU – you must either be an EFTA country that’s party to the EEA Agreement, part of the Swiss Confederation (which obviously we’re never going to be) or a member of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

Leeds 2023, European Capital of Culture

Both the Leave and Remain campaigns have hinted at what possible deals could be struck to protect the country’s single market access, even though it would no longer be an EU member nation, by working out similar deals to the EEA. However, high ranking officials of other European Union countries have flatly denied that would be a possibility. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the EU ‘had to respect the UK’s sovereignty’, and suggested the UK would be better off negotiating its own bespoke deal. If that’s the case, will our deal qualify?

It seems that only time will tell, because the European Commission have chosen not to speculate on what would happen if the UK chose to leave the EU, while Bid Team Lead Cluny Macpherson has his hands tied – because of the period of purdah, the Council is not allowed to comment until after the referendum.

What does it mean for Leeds?

Little Sure Shot at West Yorkshire Playhouse

It might sound odd, but the only certainty is that nothing is certain. An ‘out’ vote in the EU referendum isn’t an answer, it will only create more questions. Why? Because no one truly knows what will happen once the votes are counted.

That’s right – should we vote out, there is no plan in place for what to do next. There’s a two year timeframe for negotiations between the withdrawing state and the EU, which can be extended, to work out “the specific arrangements for the UK’s withdrawal and the framework for future relations between the UK and EU”.

In terms of Leeds’ European Capital of Culture bid, it leaves us in a precarious position. Will they reassess Leeds’ eligibility for the title, despite it being United Kingdom’s turn for the prize in 2023? Will the negotiations between the UK and EU become fractured, as some are predicting, leading to potential stand-offs as we’re punished for leaving by other nations?

But if it does, Leeds will be working to secure funding for its bid with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it – that is, unless the powers that be decide to disqualify the UK on the grounds that we’ve decided to leave the EU and have no guarantee that there will a qualifying deal in place in time for the either the 2018 application deadline or the 2023 event.

What will it mean if we can’t be European Capital of Culture?

Lady Beck Gallery

Right now, our European Capital of Culture bid has momentum – and it would be a shame to lose that. So we’ll keep working towards it until somebody says otherwise, but that means we run the risk of pumping more time, money and effort into something we can never actually achieve, depending on which way the decision goes.

That, however, is nothing in comparison to what we could lose if we can’t bid at all. In fact, the financial and cultural setbacks could be huge. The bid process alone, even if you don’t win, has been proven to help transform cities, by creating projects and schemes that attract European Union money.

Liverpool, 2008 European Capital of Culture

Looking back to Liverpool’s hugely successful year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, there are massive benefits that we could miss out on. During 2008 alone, Liverpool attracted 9.7 million more visits to the city than the year before – that’s a whopping 35% of the total visits that happened that year. 2.6 million of those were from Europe and the rest of the world, generating an economic impact to the tune of £753.8 million. Its figures like these that the government won’t be able to help replicate should the UK vote to leave the European Union.

When you account for inflation, that number would be even bigger now – can Leeds really afford to miss out on such a windfall, never mind the huge impact it will have across the city on a social and cultural level? And that’s not the only question we should be asking ourselves, because there’s the much wider arts picture to think about.

Northern Ballet dancers in rehearsal for 1984

The EU has a massive role to play in our cultural sector, through an organisation called Creative Europe. It has a different base in each EU country helping to fund all kinds of cultural projects, working with the likes of Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, the Arts of Council of Northern Ireland and the Welsh Government. Their work is incredibly important – in 2014 and 2015, their first year in existence, Creative Europe spent €40 million on 228 different UK cultural, creative and audiovisual organisations, including the cinema distribution of 84 UK films in other European countries.

That’s all European money the country’s cultural sectors are receiving now, as part of a funding package that lasts up until 2020. But if we can’t bid for European Capital of Culture 2023, chances are, we probably can’t partake in the benefits of Creative Europe either.

It’s something Leeds people should certainly bear in mind over the next week, as they prepare to cast their vote, because choosing whether you’re in or out isn’t just about immigration or the economy – it’s a big decision that will affect every aspect of our lives.

Lady Beck image copyright Mike Winnard. Northern Ballet image copyright Justin Slee.