Brexit week 3. Losing soft power

I have recently completed a Masters Degree in Rotterdam in Cultural Economics as a mature student. My classmates, some of the brightest young people from all over the world, have, since the Brexit vote, dismissed the UK as irrelevant to their future ambitions. Today’s bright international graduates are tomorrow’s decision makers.

I have spent a lot of time in the Netherlands and have just returned from Austria, and Bavaria in Germany, all countries where nationalist anti-immigration parties have succeeded in making some political noise but where common sense about the EU has remained solid. Our powerful, right wing press feeds us lies and hides the truth of Europe from us. Many of our most vocal politicians are guilty of the same charge. These are countries with higher taxes, but also higher wages, a higher standard of living and far better resourced public services. They in turn have been fed a myth about how well resourced the arts and culture is in the UK. Unfortunately, it is in the interests of leaders in both our main political parties to colour our negative opinions of the EU for their own ends. On the right they claim that the hand of European government is holding back the economy through fairness regulations and rights for workers. Some on the left feel that EU regulations will prevent it from doing what it dreams of doing such as privatising rail and utilities. The EU is not perfect. Free trade capitalism is flawed, rules that restrict governments may be too strict and perhaps farming subsidies do benefit the wrong people but we cannot beat the system from outside. The EU may be a compromise but standing on a moral high ground like Billy-No-Mates will get us nowhere. Far better we use our enormous influence within the tent to improve things than sulk outside. We are in serious danger of becoming an irrelevant country and an increasingly impoverished island nation off the coast of Europe. Our language is becoming the Lingua Franca of the world but we kid ourselves if we think that people want to talk to us. It is a common language allowing the Danes to speak to the Portuguese or the Dutch to converse with Poles.

During my time in Rotterdam, before the Brexit vote, with fellow students from all over the world, I was astounded at the high regard that the UK’s Arts and Culture was held. Our arms-length arts funding system, our music, our disproportionate power in the films and games industries and, not least, the BBC. This is soft power at its best. We were aspirational. The perception that we no longer want to play on an international stage, even if that was never the intent of many Brexit voters, is already palpable.