The European Commission has cancelled the UK’s turn to host the European Capital of Culture after Brexit, disappointing the bidding cities.
Five places have already bid to hold the title in 2023 – Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Belfast/Derry.
But the commission has said the UK will no longer be eligible to have a host city after it leaves the EU in 2019.
The Creative Industries Federation said it was “gutted”, while arts minister John Glen called it a “crazy decision”.
Plans for the UK to host a Capital of Culture in 2023 were announced in 2014 – before the EU referendum.
In December 2016, the UK government said the competition would “run as normal”, but did warn bidders that it “may be subject to” the Brexit negotiations.
Liverpool was the last British city to be a European Capital of Culture, in 2008, following Glasgow in 1990.
The title of European Capital of Culture rotates around eligible countries.
Cities from non-EU countries have held the title before – but if a country isn’t in the EU, it must be a candidate to join or must be in the European Free Trade Association or European Economic Area.
Government ‘deeply disappointed’
A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the government was in “urgent discussions” with the commission about the decision.
“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,” a statement said.
“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.”
The statement said the government wants the UK to continue “working with our friends in Europe”, including in cultural programmes, and will work with the bidders to “help them realise their cultural ambitions”.
The Creative Industries Federation, which represents the arts sector, said: “We are gutted to learn that the UK will not be allowed to host the European Capital of Culture as planned in 2023 after Brexit.
“This is despite the fact that cities in Europe that are outside the European Union have participated in the scheme historically.”
It added that people were “working feverishly behind the scenes to reverse this decision”.
The federation’s deputy chief executive Rosie Millard, who was to be among the contest’s judges, wrote on Twitter: “Very sad for the 5 bidding cities. I am on the judging panel & have seen all their hard work. #Brexitfallout”
Dundee’s bid team called it “a bombshell for all of us”, saying they were “hugely disappointed” that the decision had come days before they were due to make their pitch in London.
“The timing is disrespectful not only to the citizens of Dundee, but to people from all five bidding cities who have devoted so much time, effort and energy so far in this competition,” a spokesman said.
“It’s a sad irony that one of the key drivers of our bid was a desire to further enhance our cultural links with Europe.”
The Leeds bid has cost £1m over the past four years – £200,000 from the city council and £800,000 from private funders.
Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central and head of the House of Commons Select Committee for leaving the EU, said: “This is a terrible blow and has come completely out of the blue.
“It’s particularly extraordinary especially as the bids have just gone in.
“And to wait until all the work had gone in and turn around and say, ‘You can’t do this’ – it’s shoddy treatment of Leeds and the other cities have worked so hard.”
A Belfast City Council spokesman said they were “deeply disappointed” but wanted to make sure “the time, energy, enthusiasm, ideas and resources put into our bid are carried forward regardless”.
A statement from the Nottingham bid team said they hoped the situation “can be resolved positively” and Milton Keynes council leader Pete Marland said he remains “hopeful that a compromise may be found in the future”.
Three non-EU cities have previously held the title – Istanbul in 2010, Stavanger in Norway in 2008, and Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2000.
Explaining the decision, a spokesman for the European Commission said: “As one of the many concrete consequences of its decision to leave the European Union by 29 March 2019, the UK cannot host the European Capital of Culture in 2023.
“According to the rules adopted by the European Parliament and the Council (Decision 445/2014), this action is not open to third countries except candidate countries and European Free Trade Association/European Economic Area countries.
“Given that the UK will have left the EU by 29 March 2019, and therefore be unable to host the European Capital of Culture in 2023, we believe it makes common sense to discontinue the selection process now.”
The European Capital of Culture is separate from the UK City of Culture title, which is currently held by Hull.