The Brexit “The cultural sector must take countermeasures”

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann | Photo: Andreas Wrobbel

The initial economic impact of the Brexit was felt immediately. But the consequences for the cultural sector will also emerge soon. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut, spoke with us about the future role of cultural institutions, the loss of funding and why an exit is not a solution.

In the referendum a clear majority of young people, city residents and cultural professionals in the UK voted to remain in the EU. What does the decision made by British voters mean for Europe’s cultural world?

The British exit from the European Union represents a stark fissure for the cultural scene in Great Britain. Firstly, they will completely forfeit European infrastructure funds, which will lead to a rude awakening among artists and cultural people who were previously able to work with substantial European funding. The British government successfully acquired such funds, but conversely lowered their own budgets. That will lead to painful cuts. Secondly, the European funds facilitated the establishment of partnerships that supported a European cultural sector and thus initiated mutual learning processes. This helped reinforce a European consciousness. It was about participatory processes, not about power and competition.

There is a risk that in the newly isolated societal framework, artists will emigrate. That would be a bad signal for a democratic society. It amazes me that the Brexit is being treated like politics-as-usual. It is a radical and deep cut, an historic watershed. What was said during the political debate was hypocrisy and fear mongering. There was no great talk of Europe that really got under one’s skin, but just a lot of moaning and complaining! Rightly so, because it's not about Great Britain, it’s about Europe!

I think that young Europeans realized that the promise of Europe, the pluralism, the openness and the free movement in their choice of occupation, place of residence and place of business is not only an appealing prospect for life, but one they can use to take their lives in their own hands and also have viable options in times of need. Take, for example, what the people of southwestern Europe did when their jobs were lost. They learned languages, went to countries where they had better chances and got training. Or take Poland: the country would not be in such good shape today if the Poles had not had the chance to go to England and work there. And they were indeed needed there; they didn’t take away anyone’s jobs.

How do you think the Brexit was possible at all? Does the EU have a communication problem?

There are two communication problems. The first is related to the fact that the EU itself sees and portrays itself as very technocratic. It offers services, but that is not sufficient for people to commit to the EU. When there’s no emotional bond at all, when no issues are addressed that make the people feel like and commit to being Europeans, that’s simply not enough. No European should feel like a foreigner in a European country. This feeling of belonging to a community of European citizens is crucial to taking up mutual responsibility.

The second is that they failed to explain that we in Europe don’t just live on an isle of bliss, but that we also have obligations towards the rest of the world. What we’re experiencing right now in immigration has never been tackled as a topic of policies. Basically, ever since 2011 we’ve shut our eyes to the dead in the Mediterranean Sea and done nothing. And then suddenly this huge number of refugees showed up and that had to be reacted to somehow. By then it was already too late. Now we’re in a situation in which immigration triggers fear and we ascertain that we did not carefully consider how we should handle it. Words like solidarity, humanity, acceptance and respect are no longer heard in the discourse over migration on a European scale.

Obviously, we have no common position on Europe. Therefore what Cameron said, “We will not turn our backs on Europe,” is a false statement. If one is committed to Europe, then community has to be lived. There cannot be any cherry picking. Europe’s integration succeeds only through active participation, not by escaping responsibility. Yes, there are democratic deficits and the need for change. But you can only shape it if you stay in it and not if you throw in the towel. And if someone is dissatisfied with Europe and therefore leaves the EU, then he flees from responsibility. I am sure that other countries in Europe do not agree with specific positions of European policy. But then why not fight for a better Europe, a viable, a young Europe? Simply leaving is cowardly.

You once said that Europe is primarily a cultural project. What did you mean by that?

I've always seen Europe in its cultural diversity. Blaise Pascal wrote, “The multitude which is not brought to act as a unity is confusion. That unity which has not its origin in the multitude is tyranny.” That’s exactly what we are experiencing now. The European Commission’s reaction to the Brexit is to say we need more Europe – hence to centralise power even more. It looks like an act of defiance. In my opinion, that is wrong. We need to see that Europe is not a homogeneous entity and instead put the different cultures and the non-simultaneity of Europe into focus. Central and Eastern Europe have a different experience than Western Europe. This requires specific and sensitive handling. I miss that in the statements from Brussels.

In recent years, the Goethe-Institut has always relied on this cultural understanding. We have tried to promote the multilingualism of Europe as a cultural value. In addition, we have worked to make the literatures of each country, which basically reflect community thinking and community aspirations, accessible through translations as a European library. We promoted co-productions in theatre, film and music. And at the Goethe-Instituts we also fought against TTIP, to not allocate culture merely according to market principles, not measure it only according to benefits and profits.

Europe as a cultural project means that we should not rely solely on the market. Culture is a public good and an appropriate framework it required to enable artistic work, also and especially to promote new ideas to facilitate ephemeral developments and be able to take risks. This is artistic humus. My fear is that by leaving and through austerity measures, Great Britain will experience the effect of market principles spilling over into all aspects of life, especially the arts. Big numbers, big events, the tabloids are what will count. Habermas spoke of such developments as a colonization of our life-worlds – that hits it right on the head.

A look ahead: where do you think Europe will be in ten years?

I think we must be very careful that the exit of the UK does not set a precedent because at present there is dwindling confidence in political systems, an insufficient integration policy is creating additional uncertainty and constantly citing constraints – without alternatives – is further narrowing our leeway for movement and change. If we do not recognise the Brexit as a signal that we need to form a viable, more direct Europe, I think Europe is really threatened. Civil society has to exert more influence and promote social responsibility and participatory behaviour. Europe needs to again be a continent of acceptance, of respect and of discourse. If we do not regain that, then Europe will be lost. We, as the cultural sector, must take major countermeasures and demonstrate that the cultures have to stick together and that we have a shared responsibility for a European cultural region – not a national, but a community responsibility. Then I can see hope! For the Goethe-Institut, Europe is and will remain a priority. It is our creative base. As a country at the centre of Europe with nine neighbours, we have a special responsibility.