Brexit or Bremain?

Should we stay or should we go? Ahead of next week's EU referendum, Vincent Moss, former political editor of the Sunday Mirror weighs up the arguments for those in the creative industries.

The strategists behind the campaign for Britain to stay in Europe have rolled out some stellar names to endorse their cause. Writer John le Carré and poet Carol Ann Duffy were among 250 “cultural stars” who signed a letter in May, warning that leaving the EU would make Britain “less imaginative”. Alongside the letter in The Guardian, Prime Minister David Cameron released a survey by the Creative Industries Federation which shows that 96% of members of the sector wanted to remain in Europe.

But what would leaving the EU – “Brexit” – really mean for writers and creators?

Those who signed The Guardian letter – who also included Benedict Cumberbatch, Danny Boyle, Tracey Emin, Steve Coogan, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Eddie Izzard and Bill Nighy – warned of the impact on the creative arts and other projects supported by EU money. But Brexit supporters claim these famous names are just another element of what they refer to as “Project Fear” – the campaign spearheaded by the Government and Britain Stronger In Europe to highlight what they see as the risks of leaving the EU. The Brexit camp can lay claim to few public supporters from the creative world – including Munira Mirza who was in charge of cultural policy in London under Boris Johnson for eight years. The current Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is among the handful of pro-Brexit Government ministers.

Despite limited support from the creative industries, the Vote Leave campaign believes it has a strong case to persuade writers and artists to back its cause. Vote Leave say Brexit would mean the UK’s printing and publishing industries would be regulated by Britain and not Brussels. It plays its own Project Fear card with a reminder of the European Commission’s “long-standing opposition” to the zero-rating in the UK of books when it comes to VAT. Leaving the EU would mean less red tape and Britain would remain and thrive as a great cultural power, says Vote Leave. It claims that while Britain received €11.4m in 2014 for the “Creative Europe” cultural programme – others were awarded far more with Belgium getting €32.1m, Germany €20.4m, and France €44.2m. Britain would be able to negotiate better trade deals that would include the creative industries with large markets like America if we left the constraints of the EU behind, Vote Leave admits that the EU does provide valuable arts funding, but argues that the billions it claims would be saved by leaving would mean extra funds for the NHS, the arts and science. Indeed, Brexit backers say: “We could ensure that the arts and creative industries are at the centre of our Government’s priorities, public policy and civic life.”

Vote Leave insists that EU competition law has created “real burdens” for the arts world with strict rules on state aid limiting how much help the Government can offer the industry. When it comes to international copyright and intellectual property protection, Vote Leave says all the current safeguards will continue – but without the “meddling” from Europe. Its main message is that Britain’s authors and artists will not only survive, but thrive if we leave the EU. But that is a claim that is robustly countered by opponents in Downing Street and at the Stronger In campaign.
They warn the access writers and publishers enjoy to the world’s largest free trade area in the European single market would be uncertain for years while post-Brexit deals were negotiated. Pro-EU campaigners say the new Creative Europe programme will include a new €121m guarantee fund introduced this year to underwrite bank loans to creative businesses to boost the industry. They also point to the advanced legislative framework devised by the EU to protect the intellectual property of British artists in the UK and across 27 other EU countries.

All EU countries are signed up to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Any nation wanting to join the EU must agree to become a signatory of the Convention. Common copyright protection for 70 years from the death of the artist is established under the EU’s Copyright Duration Directive. The “Remain” campaign also points to a long list of other benefits that are protected under EU law. Those benefits include rights dealing with reproduction, communication, distribution, rental and lending. The EU also plans to update its copyright regime for the digital age to give writers and artists greater security, say those urging people to vote stay in the EU. They warn that leaving could mean British authors miss out on that extra protection.

The freedom of movement allowed under the single market is another key issue cited by pro-Europeans. German-born illustrator Axel Scheffler said the bestselling Gruffalo book would never have happened without the freedom of movement within the EU that allowed him to meet the book’s writer Julia Donaldson. It is a benefit that allows authors and creators to travel across Europe without the need for visas to attend literature festivals, fairs and readings. It also fuels creativity and the exchange of ideas.

A survey earlier this year by The Bookseller found 71% of the book trade was against leaving the EU – with 46% saying Brexit would be bad for business. Scottish writer Val McDermid is keen to stay in the EU, saying it would be easier to protect authors’ rights and revenues and would broaden and deepen Britain’s culture. “The last thing we should do is look inward”, she declared in May.

It is that sense of expanding cultural horizons, rather than retreating towards isolationism, that the Remain camp believes will deliver them the votes of the majority of those working in the creative industries. However, with just days to go until polling day on June 23, the outcome of the most crucial vote in a generation is far from clear.

Despite all the speeches from politicians and all the celebrity endorsements, the result will ultimately be decided by the votes of millions of ordinary people. Make yours count.