Brexit “What has been achieved by the EU is of enormous significance”

Johannes Ebert
Johannes Ebert | © Cordula Flegel

The details of a possible Brexit are still unclear in the wake of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom, yet the shock is still palpable. In our interview, Goethe-Institut Secretary-General Johannes Ebert talks about the Brexit consequences for the German cultural institute.

German government representatives appeared visibly shaken when the outcome of the Brexit referendum was announced. How did you feel when you learnt of the decision?

To be honest, I too was somewhat shocked. I would not have expected that result. Brexit is something that one had considered but never really thought would happen. I believe that many people in my field felt the same way. Perhaps we also failed to look far enough beyond the end of our own noses …

What will Brexit mean as far as the work of the Goethe-Institut is concerned?

Brexit poses a major challenge for the Goethe-Institut. As a German cultural institution, the Goethe-Institut is also a European institution, and “Europe” is firmly anchored in our statutes and in our objectives. This is another reason why Brexit is an issue that concerns us directly. Furthermore, we are involved in European networks such as EUNIC, the European Union National Institutes for Culture, and others. During the Brexit campaign it was evident that the central focus was on issues such as the economy and migration. Too little attention was paid to the accomplishments of the European Union as a peace project and joint cultural project.

The two branches of the Goethe-Institut in Great Britain, in London and Glasgow, will face challenges. In the next few months we need to emphasize Europe as a cultural and social entity that offers many opportunities and future prospects despite the considerable challenges that lie ahead. There are so many ties with the United Kingdom, especially in the area of culture. We must attempt to persuade young people that they are right to fight for the European idea. Specifically, for freedom of movement within the EU, for the freedom to choose where to live and study, and for funding and exchange programmes such as Erasmus. It would appear that some people take these achievements for granted. We must make it clear that they continue to be of enormous importance for our joint coexistence in Europe. To this end, the Goethe-Institut wishes to make use of its good ties to cultural and educational institutions in Great Britain.

Secondly, we must engage with a difficult question: How do we enter into a dialogue with those who voted for Brexit? Some of them do not live in big cities – in this context digital content may help us reach a wider audience.

Growing Euroscepticism is not only evident in the United Kingdom. How are the Goethe-Institut branches in Europe responding to this scepticism?

We have provided the European institutes with resources to enable them to respond to populist tendencies that use culture to demarcate themselves from others rather than viewing it as an opportunity for participation, for exchange within Europe and for enrichment through the impetus that comes from different social groups and artistic viewpoints. Artists taking part in a project in Bratislava have been exploring people’s relationship with refugees. In the winter, an event in Brussels will be run in collaboration with our European EUNIC colleagues on the theme of “European Angst”: What is in fact this populism? Where does this feeling of being under threat come from, and how is it dealt with?

While culture on its own will not save the world, one important task for European cultural institutes and institutions now is to place greater emphasis on Europe’s cultural ties and sense of togetherness and to make nuanced contributions to current discourse.

Culture did not play a big part in the initial reactions to Brexit.

In the initial reactions it was claimed that the European Union had failed to find the right answers to important and pressing problems and that it had therefore suffered a loss of confidence. And indeed the EU must ask itself some big questions: What should our approach be to the issues of migration and refugees? How do we ensure that youth unemployment is reduced? And how do we guarantee security? These are central political issues.

Nonetheless, we must never forget that we in Europe have a substantial network of education and culture that underlies the construct as a whole like a foundation and that provides an important basis and impetus for the future of Europe. I am convinced that the fundamental experience of the EU as a peace project and as a joint social and cultural project is the foundation upon which we stand. In my opinion it will be necessary for us to direct our attention to the fault lines in society: if a significant segment of society has reservations about European unity and solidarity, we must ask ourselves which topics, offerings and formats we use to reach out to and appeal to those who take a critical view of Europe.

Which European projects is the Goethe-Institut currently running?

Cooperating with European partners, the Goethe-Institut has a very large number of projects both within and outside the EU. We have plenty of experience of working with others. Within the framework of the Europoly theatre festival, we got together with independent European theatres to engage with hot topics such as migration or the financial crisis. Our “Actopolis” project involves interventions that allow direct engagement with the situation in Athens, Belgrade, Bucharest, Ankara, Oberhausen, Sarajevo and Zagreb. In addition, we hope that the “Collecting Europe” project, which we will be carrying out early next year in cooperation with the Victoria and Albert Museum and which will see artists using artworks, collectibles or design to express their views of today’s Europe from a future perspective, will generate impetus for a European debate in Great Britain.