Leeds’s capital of culture hopes are dashed as European Commission confirms UK city can’t hold title after Brexit

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Leeds’s hopes of becoming European Capital of Culture in 2023 have been all but dashed after the European Commission confirmed a British city cannot hold the lucrative title post Brexit.

The Commission confirmed the eligibility criteria for the competition were that cities have to be EU Member States or candidates or members of other European trade agreements.

It followed earlier outrage over a leaked letter to Ministers from Martine Reicherts, director-general in the European Commission’s education and culture department, who said the bidding process - which has seen Leeds and four other cities submit their applications after years of preparations dating before the 2016 EU referendum - should be “discontinued” because of the Brexit vote.

Ministers are today fuming over the letter, slamming European leaders for waiting until British cities had submitted their final bids just weeks ago before issuing their new position.

And senior figures in the Leeds 2023 team are continuing to hold emergency talks.

In an internal email seen by the YEP, Leeds’s bid bosses said it seemed like the European Commission was “adding [the bid] into the Brexit mix”, branding the move a “volte face” which the UK Government should “clearly reject”.

PIC: Simon Hulme

PIC: Simon Hulme

Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, hit out at the decision to announce the changed position just FOUR DAYS before Leeds’ bid team was due to meet the judging panel.

She told the YEP: “We are hugely frustrated by the European Commission’s apparent proposal to remove the opportunity for a UK city to host the European Capital of Culture title in 2023. This announcement has been made after cities have submitted their 80 page bids and just four working days before the city was due to meet with the panel is shocking.

“As a city, we have pursued this title with enthusiasm, diligence and determination, following the process to the letter throughout and to have the rug pulled from under us at this late stage would be a huge blow.

“In Leeds we believe in a future where our culture in all its forms is valued and experienced by the broadest set of people, and for it to be central to the city’s identity and to its future - both economically and socially.

Launch of the Leeds European Capital of Culture bid at the Hyde Park, Picture House, Leeds. Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake pictured. 10th October 2017. Picture by Simon Hulme

Launch of the Leeds European Capital of Culture bid at the Hyde Park, Picture House, Leeds. Leader of Leeds City Council Judith Blake pictured. 10th October 2017. Picture by Simon Hulme

“We have held urgent talks with the DCMS and other bidding cities today and we await further clarification from the DCMS regarding what steps we now need to take.

“We remain fully committed to the excellent work that has already been carried out alongside our European partners to promote Leeds as a centre for cultural excellence and diversity and will continue to progress our ambitious strategy to put culture at the heart of everything we do as a city.”

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn said the news was “a terrible blow to Leeds’s great bid for 2023 which has gathered so much support from across the city”.

“It is also inexplicable given that in the past Bergen and Istanbul have both been awarded the title even though neither Turkey nor Norway are members of the European Union,” he added.

“The European Commission must now explain why it has decided to engage in blatant discrimination against the bid from Leeds.”

Leeds North East MP Fabian Hamilton added: “I am extremely disappointed that the city’s bid to become the European City of Culture has been thrown out.

“Leeds is a city that prides itself on its multiculturalism and so is home to many different open, friendly and interesting cultures.

“It would be a perfect candidate for the European City of Culture and I sincerely hope that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport works with organisers to ensure the bid is successfully launched.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: “We disagree with the European Commission’s stance and are deeply disappointed that it has waited until after UK cities have submitted their final bids before communicating this new position to us.

“The Prime Minister has been clear that while we are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe and this has been welcomed by EU leaders. We want to continue working with our friends in Europe to promote the long-term economic development of our continent, which may include participating in cultural programmes. We remain committed to working with the five UK cities that have submitted bids to help them realise their cultural ambitions and we are in urgent discussions with the Commission on the matter.”

Read more: Leeds 2023: Thousands sign online pledge backing city’s European Capital of Culture bid

Leeds has spent more than three years and hundreds of thousands of pounds so far in putting together an ambitious entry, with a high profile launch event just weeks ago.

The process has involved pledges of funding and support from a huge range of private and public sector organisations.

A spokesperson for the Leeds 2023 bid team said: “We are aware of a letter from the European Commission regarding the cancellation of the European Capital of Culture competition for all UK bidding cities and are seeking urgent clarification from DCMS.”

However sources suggested there was already a huge amount of disappointment, and anger that cities like Leeds are being used as a “Brexit bargaining chip” in a wider political game.

Read more: Culture bid schism opens in Leeds as another councillor quits Labour

The letter from Ms Reicherts stressed that after Brexit, “the participation of the United Kingdom in the European Capital of Culture action will not be possible”.

It pointed out that the opportunity to hold the title is “not open to third countries” except those who are candidates to be in the EU, and those which are in the EEA (European Economic Area) and EFTA (European Free Trade Association). Talks about the UK’s future trade relations with the continent are yet to begin, with a decision due next month on whether enough progress has been made so far for those advanced talks to start.

Countries not in the EU HAVE previously held the title, including Istanbul, Reykjavík and Stavanger in Norway.

A European Commission spokesman said: “The decision to nominate Hungary and the UK as hosts of the European Capitals of Culture for 2023 was taken by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in 2014, two years before the UK decided to leave the EU.

“As one of the many concrete consequences of that UK decision, UK participation is no longer possible.

“It therefore makes sense to discontinue the selection process.

“Countries eligible to host the European Capitals of Culture are: EU member states, candidates to join and EFTA/EEA countries that participate in the Creative Europe programme. This is stipulated in the EU legal text governing the programme (Decision 445/2014, Article 3).”