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In Brexit’s immediate aftermath, the creative and scientific industries screamed as their funding was cut and opportunities for international collaboration reduced. But as the dust settles, many of Britain’s most innovative industries have returned to their characteristic pragmatism – to find how to make the most of a challenging new situation. If Brexit must mean Brexit (whatever that actually means), then it seems that Britain will have to find new ways both to fund its own programmes and to keep reeling in new talent from abroad. What remains now is to find the best way to limit the negative consequences of the UK’s vote to leave, both at home and abroad.

Is it me or is it the EU?

As 52 per cent of Britons were keen to point out, the EU was far from perfect. This is not least because the UK’s efforts to make the most of the programmes on offer were muted at best. Examples are the European Social Fund (ESF) programmes. The UK, or specifically England, was one of the last Member States to agree on an Operational Programme (an outline of what will happen and how) for the 2014-20 period. Even now, payments for that period have been made to less than 12 European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) projects.  

The problem is not a lack of resources. From 2014-15, the UK received £368 million from the ESF and £1.3 billion from the ERDF, most of which was distributed though the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). The current round of ESF funding in England for 2014-20 is estimated to be worth about €3 billion, a sum that the UK government will have to make up if and when we leave.

But because of the way the EU funds work, many regions have been loath to spend EU money in areas such as youth employment, because this then detracts from funds in other areas such as adult employment. This may be a reason why in London, although £40 million was committed and calls for projects went out from March 2015 until July 2016, no bids for projects were ever received. The very structure of how projects apply for and receive funding in the UK needs to be changed.

Now could be the opportunity for the government to reform a system that has neglected localism, and this could also be a way to give back a voice to many of the UK’s regions who feel that they are being ignored. Indeed, CEO of Network for Europe Andy Churchill argues: “We must tackle what the protest vote was actually about.” Many of the voices in Brussels share this opinion: the people of Britain were not voting to leave the EU, they were voting for change and recognition from a government which they felt was no longer listening.

The edge of the playground 

The problem is, now that the UK has excluded itself from the EU, it will no longer be able to influence how employment and mobility laws are made in Europe. Supposedly this does not matter, as we now have complete control over our own government and laws, and those are the only things that affect us. Sadly, this is not true.

As Mr Churchill points out: “We have bigger problems: migration, employment, Russia… We should be tackling those, rather than worrying about what club we are in.” These problems are all entwined: to tackle migration, we must negotiate our relationship with the EU and decide whether we accept freedom of movement. To limit the advance of Russia, we must unite in imposing sanctions and show that Europe cannot be divided and conquered. We cannot pretend that what happens in Europe does not affect us. We no longer have power to change EU laws. But we may be able to stop our actions from having a dangerous ripple effect on the continent.

Learning from the past

Britons, and many other EU populations, seem reluctant to recall that the EU was formed first and foremost to prevent war in Europe. Robert Schuman’s goal was to make war in Europe “not only unthinkable but materially impossible”, a proposal that seemed almost far-fetched when he was speaking in 1950. Yet he succeeded in that war between France and Germany now seems outlandish to most of us.

However, this peace has lasted so long that it now risks being taken for granted. It should not be forgotten that the EU was created for political reasons as well as economic ones. This is especially relevant in light of the rise of ISIS and the increase in refugees coming to Western Europe. In our haste to combat terrorism, we risk alienating one another, until the ‘enemy’ becomes anyone who has not proven themselves to be just like us. As a former CIA counterterrorism agent recently remarked: “If you hear [your enemy] out…you can see that, more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices, if you had lived their life instead of yours.” In a time when danger seems to be closing in on all sides, preaching compassion may seem less appealing than anger or fear. But keeping a cool head, and reminding ourselves of the lessons of the past, may be the only way to preserve the peace that our forefathers fought so hard to create.

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