Antony Gormley and the myth of a progressive EU

The Remainer cultural elites cling to a European ideal that exists only for a privileged few.

JJ Charlesworth

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Topics Brexit Culture

For many in the British cultural establishment, Brexit was (and still is) an incomprehensible, foolish rejection of the unqualified benefits of the European Union. The creative industries, according to one noted poll in the lead-up to the 2016 referendum, were 96 per cent in favour of staying in the EU, and many working in the arts and culture have been raging ever since. Britain’s contemporary artists are some of the most outspoken about Britain leaving the EU, to the point that some of them would rather leave Britain. Last week, speaking at an exhibition opening in the Netherlands, famed sculptor Antony Gormley announced that such were his strong feelings over Brexit that he had applied for German citizenship. ‘I’m embarrassed about Brexit’, he lamented, ‘it’s a practical disaster, a betrayal of my parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifice to make a Europe that was not going to be divided again’.

Gormley’s comments come not long after fellow artist Cornelia Parker revealed that she was thinking of applying for German citizenship. ‘[Brexit] affects everything’, she told the Guardian. ‘Your freedom of movement, my daughter’s future… I don’t like feeling not part of Europe. I don’t want to be a little Englander.’

Gormley and Parker’s idealised view of Europe is understandable – both have a German parent who survived the Second World War. But then having European parents isn’t so uncommon. I’m the grandson of English and Belgian grandparents. The English side were bombed by the Nazis and went on to fight them in the Normandy invasion. The Belgian side endured Germany’s brutal occupation for five years, as well as Allied bombing raids. And their children, my parents, were the product of the idealism of the 1950s and 60s, inspired by the vision of a Europe that would be peaceful, free and prosperous. That ideal, of cosmopolitanism and cooperation, is the one many Boomer Remainers such as Gormley and Parker stubbornly cling to, ignoring the much grimmer reality of the present-day EU.

None of our parents and grandparents who experienced the war, and the postwar reconstruction, would have envisioned the EU in its current form. It is a backroom technocracy of elites, making decisions beyond the reach of popular accountability, increasingly hostile to democracy and the aspirations of its millions of citizens. As many of us have always maintained, it’s possible to be for Europe, for fellow Europeans and for European culture – but against the EU.

The ‘little Englander’ slur is one of the more ingrained prejudices of cultured Remainers. It has always been a way of expressing their contempt for those stuck with the consequences of the European project, those people unable or unwilling to shift from their ‘little’, provincial world and attitudes. These are the people, moreover, who the cultural establishment spent two decades up until the referendum patronising and cajoling. Arts policies and newbuild art galleries imagined that culture would rehabilitate the left-behind provincials of post-industrial Britain. Until, that is, post-industrial Britain voted the ‘wrong’ way. (Gormley, with haughty disdain, has previously described Brexit as ‘a stupid moment of collective fibrillation’ and ‘a disease’.)

Prominent Remainers profess their love for EU free movement, but studiously look the other way when it comes to its less romantic reality. Its only real achievement has been to facilitate the flow of cheap labour from poorer to richer EU states. This is the dominant economic reality of the free movement of labour, not the individualist idyll of foot-loose, self-determining bohemianism, or the career mobility of the well-paid creative. The latest Home Office figures for applications to the EU settled-status scheme reveal the stark trends in where Europeans, settling in Britain post-Brexit, are from: while the table is headed by poorer Eastern European Romania and Poland, these are followed by Italy, Portugal and Spain – southern Eurozone countries which were battered by the consequences of the EU’s stubborn and heedless imposition of the single currency.

While Remainers crow about insularity and ‘little Englanders’, it turns out that Britain is actually becoming more cosmopolitan, not less, since Brexit – just not in the way they mean it. Not only are 3.2million European citizens now fully settled and 2.6million ‘pre-settled’ (meaning they’ll be fully settled after five years of residence), but also the British population is becoming more international. Recent ONS figures show that the number of workers not born in the UK has increased as a share of the labour force, from 17 per cent in June 2016 to 19 per cent in March 2022, with the increase made up of non-EU workers.

Since the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, getting yourself an EU passport has become popular among British creatives. The EU, for a particular group of cultural professionals, has always been an idyllic playground of cheap rents, affordable studios and gentrified bohemian lifestyles. Those who inhabit the upper echelons of British arts and culture have always seen Europe as a set of rosy ideals stuck somewhere in the 1960s (a time when, ironically, the EU didn’t exist). They seem not to have noticed the grinding, anti-democratic economic and political behemoth that has taken shape since the 1993 Maastricht Treaty. The eagerness of British creatives to get themselves European citizenship seems less a noble gesture of protest against insularism and more an act of self-interested pragmatism, from people who fear Brexit will put a few more administrative crimps in their otherwise privileged lifestyles and careers.

JJ Charlesworth is an art critic and editor at ArtReview.

Picture by: Getty.

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