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Living as I do just 25 miles from Leeds I was thrilled when Leeds announced its bid for European Capital of Culture for 2023. Nearly every week I attend ballet classes in the studios of Northern Ballet or contemporary classes run by Phoenix Dance Theatre in Morley Town Hall. I am often in the audience at the Grand, West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre or other auditoriums in the city or nearby.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned about the letter from Martine Reicharts, Director-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture advising Sue Owen, our Permanent Secretary for Department for Culture, Media and Sport, that following our withdrawal from the European Union the participation of the United Kingdom in the European Capital of Culture would not be possible and that the selection process should be discontinued.
That letter has been represented in this country as gratuitous spitefulness on the part of the Commission upon which politicians and media favouring Brexit have sought to capitalize, but, really, Ms Reicharts's hands are tied. The European Capital of Culture is an EU initiative established by Decision EU 445/2014/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 April 2014 establishing a Union action for the European Capitals of Culture for the years 2020 to 2033 and repealing Decision No 1622/2006/EC. A decision is a law made by the governments of the EU member states including that of the United Kingdom and members of the European Parliament including those representing British constituencies. Not only that but a draft of the legislation was circulated to national parliaments which include the House of Commons and the House of Lords. So no politician in this country can say that we were never warned.
Eligibility for participation in the initiative is set out in art 3 (2):
"The number of cities holding the title in a given year (‘the year of the title’) shall not exceed three.There is no provision in the legislation for participation in the initiative by a city in a country that has ceased to be a member state and one wouldn't expect it to be since this initiative is EU funded and the selection criteria include a "European dimension" (see art 5 (2)).
The title shall be awarded each year to a maximum of one city in each of the two Member States appearing in the calendar set out in the Annex (‘the calendar’) and, in the relevant years, to one city from a candidate country or a potential candidate, or to one city from a country that accedes to the Union in the circumstances set out in paragraph 5."
Ironically, there was an opportunity for the British government, British MEPs and indeed MPs and peers at Westminister to negotiate an exception that might have allowed continued British participation in the project after 2023 because the governments of the EU member states and the European Parliament changed the rules on eligibility very recently. Art 1 (1) of Decision (EU) 2017/1545 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 September 2017 amending Decision No 445/2014/EU establishing a Union action for the European Capitals of Culture for the years 2020 to 2033 (Text with EEA relevance) changed the eligibility criteria by amending art 3 (2) of Decision ni 445/2014 as follows:
"paragraph 2 is replaced by the following:I can find no evidence that our Department for Culture, Media and Sport made any attempt to make another exception for the UK's participation in 2023.
‘2. The number of cities holding the title in a given year (“the year of the title”) shall not exceed three.
The title shall be awarded each year to a maximum of one city in each of the two Member States appearing in the calendar set out in the Annex (“the calendar”) and, in the relevant years, to one city from a European Free Trade Association country which is party to the Agreement on the European Economic Area (“EFTA/EEA country”), a candidate country or a potential candidate, or to one city from a country that accedes to the Union in the circumstances set out in paragraph 5.’"
So, like the leader of Leeds City Council, I am deeply frustrated by the termination of the selection process in the UK (see Leeds 2023 press release). However, despite the goading of sections of our media and UKIP, most Tory and many Labour politicians, my frustration is not with the Ms Reicharts or the Commission but with our Department for Culture, Media and Sport. They gave the cities false hopes in July (see the press release "It's on" 5 July 2017). They should never have allowed the process to advance this far. Above all, they should have taken steps to avoid the massive expenditure on promotion which could have been used on programmes like Young at Arts which make an enormous dfference to the lives of those who take part in it.
Can anything be done now? Well, we could revoke our notice under art 50 of the Treaty of European Union but that opposed by powerful interests. We could try to persuade our European partners to change the rules yet again but that is hardly more realistic. I think we should do what we can to support the arts and education in Leeds and other candidate cities so that they can enjoy as many of the benefits that would have come with the capital of culture title as possible.
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