The art of Brexit: Time to up our game on the world stage

John Whittingdale
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View Of Sotheby's London 6th July Old Masters & Treasure Sales
The art industry in the UK is directly responsible for 44,700 jobs (Source: Getty)

One of the most frustrating aspects of the outcome of the Brexit vote last year is the extent to which too many in politics and the media are determined to talk the country down.

Barely a day goes by without a dire warning, often reported without scrutiny, that Brexit will be a disaster or that the economy is about to fall off a cliff. Every piece of bad news is celebrated as proof of this, while good economic news is too often prefaced with the words “despite Brexit”.

In fact, since the referendum, the opposite of economic doom has happened. GDP is up and employment is at record levels. Confidence in Britain is high, with the UK attracting more foreign investment in the past year than ever before. Companies that previously warned of an exodus of jobs are instead committing themselves to further investment.

Read more: Putting the "art" in startup: UK art marketplace Artfinder raises $2.2m

Yes, there are challenges ahead. We need to reach an agreement on our terms of exit and begin negotiations to allow maximum access to the Single Market. There are practical arrangements that will need to be made to ensure cross-border trade continues as normal once we have left.

No one says these discussions will be easy. But we should not lose sight of the reason that people voted to leave: it was a vote of confidence in Britain, and our ability to strike trade deals with other countries and decide for ourselves what laws we wish to follow.

For many organisations, the opportunities stemming from Brexit for an economy like Britain’s, which relies heavily on unimpeded trade and value added services to the rest of the world, are becoming increasingly clear.

Earlier this month, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, president of the Supreme Court, said that Brexit will boost, rather than undermine, the UK’s standing as the world’s legal centre.

Others are also seeing the advantages. The British Art Market Federation represents the major art dealers and auction houses in the UK, including Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Last week it came forward and said that Brexit represents a golden opportunity to strengthen the UK’s position as a global hub for the art and antique trade.

The art market is a prime example of how British excellence can compete successfully in the global economy.

The UK is currently the world’s second largest art market, and accounts for 62 per cent of the entire EU art market.

It is one of those sectors in which Britain excels – high value, knowledge based, and founded on international trade, attracting high spending visitors from around the world.

According to a study by Arts Economics, the industry is directly responsible for 44,700 jobs, supports an additional 94,710 jobs through ancillary services, and paid £1.46bn in UK taxes last year.

Although the EU market is important, the majority of our international art trade in terms of value is with non-EU countries.

While satisfactory trading and smooth customs arrangements with the EU are paramount, Brexit also offers the opportunity to improve the UK’s competitive position and attract more jobs and investment into the sector.

Thanks to powers repatriated from Brussels, we will be able to make our own decisions and remove costs and regulatory burdens which hinder our ability to compete in the global market.

One example of this will be the ability to decide whether we want to continue with the EU’s requirement to levy a tariff on works of art coming to the UK.

The minimum requirement under EU rules is five per cent, but this compares unfavourably with other major art markets such as the US and Hong Kong, which do not have such a tariff, and mainland China, which has a lower rate. It was for this reason that the British government opposed the introduction of the levy at the time.

Under these and other costly and bureaucratic EU rules, the UK has seen sales fall compared to other competitors such as the US and China.

Brexit provides an opportunity to create a level playing field with our global rivals by removing costs and regulatory burdens that have been imposed by EU legislation, and decide for ourselves how we want to draw on the most talented workforce from around the world to increase our share of the international art market.

In the coming months and years, I predict we will see more and more industries making the most of Brexit, casting off the shackles of EU regulations and embracing the opportunities to engage more with the rest of the world.

Read more: Liam Fox has a deadline in mind for a Brexit transition period

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