Can the UK still host the European Capital of Culture?

The city that once  brought you concrete cows is now hoping to go on better by being awarded the title of Europe’s top culture capital.

Milton Keynes, a “new town” built to relieve London congestion in the 1960s, is one of five UK cities seeking the sought-after title of European Capital of Culture.

Until now, however, the town is arguably most famous for its 126 roundabouts and concrete cows.

But Milton Keynes’s bid, called ‘Different by Design’, insists that while it may not be known for its high art and culture,there is more to the town than concrete cows.

Its application to the EU asks people to “look again at a place they may think they know, but don’t”.

Officially declared a new town on January 23, 1967, Milton Keynes was built to help cater for housing shortages in London but is possibly best known for its Concrete Cows, an iconic art sculpture that was created in 1978 by Canadian artist Liz Leyh.

The animals, the town’s most photographed “residents”, consist of three black and white cows and three calves, which are approximately half life sized.

Milton Keynes, which marked its 50th anniversary earlier this year, hopes to be the UK nominee for the prestige crown of European Capital of Culture in 2023, when a UK city is scheduled to share the title with one from Hungary.

Belfast and Derry, Dundee, Leeds and Nottingham are also in the running.

However, despite the much-maligned town’s best efforts to promote itself it still remains unclear if, post Brexit, the UK will be able to enter a city for the contest in 2023.

The Culture Secretary Karen Bradley formally launched the competition for the title in December 2016 following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

A Government source said, “As the UK is still a member of the European Union, it is currently the country’s legal right to host the event. However, whether or not the event goes ahead after Brexit is dependent on the outcome of negotiations with the EU.”

A “culture city” is designated by the EU for a period of one calendar year during which it organises a series of cultural events “with a strong European dimension.”

Each cities’ submissions will be assessed by a panel of cultural experts appointed by the European Commission and a shortlist is expected to be announced by the end of the year. Shortlisted cities will submit a second bid and the winner will be announced in 2018.

Alain Hutchinson, who is one of the ten experts who will make a decision on the 2023 contest, criticised the UK government for entering Milton Keynes and the other four in the competition when, according to him, Britain will be ineligible to enter by 2023.

Hutchinson, who is the Brussels Commissioner for Europe, said, “These five UK cities have sent  us very glossy brochures promoting their bids but, given that the UK is due to leave the EU, this would appear to be a waste of time and money. It seems irresponsible of the government to mislead these cities into believing their can  still enter after Brexit.”

A European commission spokesman said, “Until the UK leaves the EU, it remains a member with all the rights and obligations of membership. We cannot speculate on what the future relationship between the EU and UK will look like.”

The chosen city will join two other UK cities – Glasgow and Liverpool – to become the third British host of the title. Liverpool, which held the title in 2008, estimated it saw a return of £750m to the local economy from £170m of spending.

The government says that three non-EU cities have held the title in the past – Reykjavik in 2000, Stavanger in 2008, and Istanbul in 2010 – with the hosts only required to show a “strong European dimension” to their cultural programmes. Aarhus, in Denmark, and Paphos, in Cyprus, are currently the 2017 European capitals of culture.

A Belfast council spokeswoman said: “As a current and active member of the EU, the UK is continuing to run the European Capital of Culture competition.  The UK and Hungary have been selected as the host nations for 2023 by the European Commission which has already appointed the jury panel to assess the competition.”

“We remain very positive and submitted our first stage bid at the end of October. If we are successful in being shortlisted, we will be undertaking very high level discussions to assure our continued eligibility. As formally stated by the Department of Culture Media and Sport, the UK government will advise bidding cities on any impact of Brexit on the title once negotiations have concluded, and we have been regularly monitoring all advice received so that we can continue to make informed decisions.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “Celebrating the cultural heritage and innovation of our cities is part of our plan for a dynamic, global Britain. The UK will seek to agree our continued participation in the 2023 European Capital of Culture as part of our exit negotiations.”

A government source said, “Until we leave the EU, we remain a full member with all the rights and obligations that brings with it. This means fully engaging in cultural programmes.The UK is one of two countries that is scheduled to host the Capital of Culture in 2023, and the decision on which city wins the competition would be taken before we leave the EU.This would not be the first time that a country that is not part of the EU has hosted the European Capital of Culture.”