British Council boss: Brexit won’t change the way we help the world

British Council CEO Sir Ciarán Devine gives the keynote speech at the Next Generation: Navigating a World in Transition event in Brussels on 10 January 2018. [Lode Saidane/British Council]

The British Council will continue to do the work it has always done, despite Brexit, and its priorities in areas like Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East remain as important as ever, said the organisation’s CEO in a wide-ranging interview.

Sir Ciarán Devane has been the chief executive of the British Council since 2015. A trained chemical engineer, he was previously head of British charity Macmillan Cancer Support.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan.

To what extent does the British Council liaise with the EU institutions during the course of its work?

There are three dimensions to that. On the development side, we are, philosophically at least, much more focused on global goals than the Millennium Development Goals. If we’re talking about vaccines, then that isn’t really our field, but if it’s about building up civil society and improving education, then our work may well include that.

We are ultimately all about relationships. We want individuals, associations, institutions in the UK connected and relevant to countries that are important to the UK.

Our sub-Saharan Africa strategy, which is focused on entrepreneurship, is very similar in philosophy to the direction followed here in Brussels. On the cultural side of things, the External Action Service is relatively good at seeing that one of Europe’s biggest assets is being able to have conversations around culture, civil society development and using that in development.

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The EEAS is relatively new, while the British Council was set up in 1934, do you think that it has learned from organisations like the Council and the Goethe institute?

Yes they have and they have been very good at talking to the practitioners network, talking to EUNIC, talking to us individually. There’s a lot of language in their strategy that we would certainly recognise. The challenge facing both of us is to make sure that is transferred into implementation and not just of the easy bits.

On the cultural side of things, you maintain that every young British person should have some sort of experience in international study and the Erasmus programme is synonymous with that. Are you concerned that the Brexit vote will affect the way the British Council pursues its goals?

The short answer is no. For two reasons: the world did not change on 23 June 2016, so the priorities we had about the next generation before the vote did not change after it.

Relationships with the Eastern Neighbourhood and emerging economies are still very important. The referendum result certainly adds another priority to our list but it certainly did not replace the ones we already had. We are a long-term organisation, so what we do in the likes of Lebanon or Jordan has a two-decade-long vision.

A change in the constitutional relationship between the UK and the EU does not reduce that importance. But of course it means that we have to adjust what we do with the 27 member states.

Before, we did relatively little in the rest of the EU because we had other mechanisms for that. Erasmus +, Horizon 2020, Creative Europe were all massively building cultural ties and we really relied on them. Now, we have to hammer home our view that the UK must continue to participate in those programmes.

If we withdraw from those mechanisms, then other multilateral instruments will have to be put in place, as binary relationships with each member state really isn’t the efficient way to go. Those bilateral arrangements would ultimately favour larger states like France, Germany, Italy, to the detriment of smaller countries.

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If the Brexit negotiations do not secure the United Kingdom’s participation in the hugely popular Erasmus programme, the effect on Wales “would be massive” in particular, according to the former EU official credited with helping get the scheme off the ground in 1987.

The EU is planning for life after the UK and has already insisted that programmes like Erasmus and Horizon 2020 should be spared budgetary cuts, as Brussels looks to fill a €13bn hole. Is that at least a silver lining, that culture is still enjoying a sort of sacred cow status?

I don’t meet anyone that is saying there should be less or no engagement and participation in cultural programmes, at least. There is no contention in this regard, unlike in passporting of financial services or more difficult issues. So why don’t we just agree on this? It would help set the tone for other parts of the negotiations.

Could cultural exchanges and programmes be put at risk by technological advances? Nowadays, when people want to learn something about another culture, they can just ask Google? Or will technology just make your work easier?

There’s nothing like experiencing something first hand, be that music, sport, the arts or whatever. Progress will only make these engagements more possible and easier to organise. There’s no evidence that young people want anything other than more experiences. Technology is only going to make things more interesting.

The British Council was set up in part to deal with the effects of the Great Depression. Can some parallels be drawn now in 2018, in the face of the refugee crisis, wars in the Middle East and globalisation?

I don’t think we are living in the 1930s but there are some similar characteristics. On average, globalisation is a good thing but there is a distribution going on. Closing industries and its effect on communities has to be taken into account, as does it impacts on people’s sense of place in the world.

The rules of the game are changing, because of things like social media. Take ISIS as an example. Previously, people with crazy ideas weren’t able to meet and affect the kind of extremism they are responsible for. But now they can and we don’t know how to deal with that yet.

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The Council often works in places where the UK exerted a colonial presence. Is your work ever met with opposition because of that or other factors?

I would say no, because the British Council has its own heritage. We are often contacted by people that used to work for us or were taught English through our programmes who laud what we have done. We enjoy this sort of compound interest that draws on the decades of good work that has been done. Of course, we have to deal with people who are wary about engaging with other cultures and who protect their own fervently. But that is not aimed at us in particular: it’s any outside influence or actor.

With this heritage in mind, does that mean the Council is seen in standing on its own or is it still firmly associated with Westminster?

We enjoy this form of dual-status, where we are a charity and an arm of government at the same time. That ambiguity, as it were, is what allows us to be effective. It lets us do things other charities would not be able to do and it allows us to do things that the government would not want to do. It really works in our favour.

Your work is meant to make the UK’s foreign policy goals easier or at least run more smoothly. Does the current head of the foreign office, Boris Johnson, actually make your work more difficult?

We have a good relationship with the foreign office, to be honest. His recent visit to Moscow demonstrated that, yes there are difficult areas of conversation to be broached, but there is good cooperation between the two countries. Our cultural ties underpin everything after all and rapprochement in that area makes it easier for politicians to make progress.

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To what extent can and will you try to affect the Brexit negotiations?

We put together a document over the course of a number of weeks that outlines our broad opinion on a number of issues like Erasmus.

Our goal is to make sure people know our point of view and we made sure that was seen by the EU negotiating team and the British side.

It’s important that member states realise there are points on which we already strongly agree. We aren’t a lobbying organisation and we’re not in the room but there’s no reason we can’t make our view known. Continuing to engage in critical areas with our neighbours is what we are interested in.

So you won’t be presenting Michel Barnier with your own hamper of British produce?

I would make no comment on that!

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