Dundee’s City of Culture bid failure is a sign of things to come

AS everyone now knows, the European Commission took the decision last week to confirm that UK cities are not likely to be eligible for participation in the European Capital of Culture programme. In Scotland this was a bitter (and badly timed) blow to Dundee who had worked hard to put a cracking bid together. It was all the more unfair because Dundee voted to remain, as did Scotland, and the bid had unanimous cross party support from MSPs, MPs and MEPs. Four other cities are just as disappointed. And this is not some fluffy nicety – as well as a cash prize and huge prestige, a £128 million boost for the economy and around 16,000 new jobs were predicted to be generated by Dundee’s bid, as well as £40m of events.

So it is a real blow. But, as ever, there is a lot more to it than the headline, and I’m concerned this shows us where Brexit might take us all. Scotland stuck in a much smaller and meaner Union, something diminished, with a horizon that spans only as far as the white cliffs of Dover, presided over by a crumbling palace by the Thames.

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First published in The National, 29 November 2017.

Nobody nowhere wanted to lose UK participation in the Capital of Culture scheme. I don’t think even the most headbanging Tory wanted to lose it, but here’s the danger. A solution could have been found, but one wasn’t. And the EU is losing patience with the UK’s “have our cake and eat it” nonsense.

The eligibility criteria are clear, and written down, easy to find on the commission website. Cities need to be from an EU member state, an EEA/EFTA state, or a candidate country. Other countries can participate in other culture programmes – for example, Tunisia has just been added to the list of potential partner countries for some projects. Clear, straightforward, written down and agreed, signed off by the parliament in which I serve.

So in the absence of a fix, it is crystal clear no UK city is eligible. In the same way as it is crystal clear that, in the absence of a fix, all EU stuff – be it residence rights, fishing rights, rights to trade with the EU, visa free travel, EU funding, rights to fly planes into or out of EU airspace, university research funding, pet passports or anything else – stops on Brexit. Nothing somehow rolls on. It needs an agreed fix or it stops.

So why did the bids get as far as they did? From the 52 per cent UK Brexit vote onwards there has been a question mark over whether UK cities would be eligible, yet it was hoped that a fix would be found. Last week, not only was a fix not found, it was the European Commission that pulled the plug in frustration thanks to the UK’s lack of progress.

Each of the councils sought reassurance from the UK ministry responsible, and received it. Dundee and the rest were entirely reasonable in preparing bids. Doing my best to be charitable, I think there was a genuine hope in the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport that a fix would be found. But one wasn’t, because the UK negotiations are going so badly. The UK accepted the EU proposal on programming of talks, Phase One to deal with: the rights of citizens, the financial settlement and the Irish border; then, if sufficient progress has been made on those three, Phase Two on the many different aspects of the future relationship. Things like whether the European Culture Capital should extend to “… former EU member states”, for example. If this was agreed by the UK on the one side and the 27 on the other, a fix is found.

But a fix has not been found, and Dundee has lost out because of it. But then the reaction, especially from the BBC, was telling. It was those beastly Europeans being unreasonable, not us Brits! We want to continue, they won’t let us! Stop punishing us Fritz! I think some of them even believed it, but as ever, those given airtime did little more than expose their tooth-numbingly ill informed opinions on a process they patently don’t understand. The extent of the spin overdrive surprised even me, and I think tells us how the rest of the talks will go.

I do not think the European Capital of Culture Programme is the most important EU scheme, but it does matter and is a real-life example of how this process works, and how things can be thrown away. I think we’re near an agreement that Phase One has made sufficient progress so that we can move on to Phase Two, as there is an appetite and a need to get more of this stuff pinned down than we have to date. Wait till the pennies start dropping. Wait till we all see what else is being lost. Wait till we find out that no, actually, we cannot have our cake and eat it. The Brexiters will put on an industrial scale spin operation to try to convince you the EU is being vindictive. They are already. Scotland didn’t buy their snake oil in the referendum. Don’t buy it now.