Foundations and Brexit: A view from… Europe

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what Brexit means for foundations. We will include perspectives from across the UK and from funders with a number of specialisms and approaches. Although the situation changes daily and the implications are still uncertain, this series will explore some of the thoughts and reactions from within the sector. The eighth and final article in our series comes from Gerry Salole, Chief Executive of the European Foundation Centre.


A view from… Europe

It has become very clear to us that even some foundations who work with poverty, integration, unemployment, with those who are ‘left behind’, were surprised by the referendum result. It is taking a long time for them to digest, but Brexit also offers a kind of reality check – are they reaching the people they want to be reaching? Are they properly in touch with people who don’t agree with them or who don’t see things from their perspective? There is an invitation in the result that forces institutions to look again at what they are doing.

rom the European perspective – and we still think of the UK as being part of Europe – it is important to ask what we can learn from it. There are large pockets of our populations who are not necessarily seeing any benefits or are very angry, are nostalgic for a very distant past, or want something different. They are sending a clear message to the political leadership that they are not happy.

There are many other ‘fall-outs’ from Brexit that we need to understand. In terms of membership, we have had a couple of UK foundations who have left, and a couple who have joined, so we can’t yet tell if people are going to be more isolationist and hunker down, or reach out even more. Obviously I would rather people reached out. EFC has never been European in the sense of an EU entity – we have Norwegian and Swiss, Russian, Turkish, American, African and Asian members too.

We would expect to continue to have UK foundations represented in the membership, but I would hope that Brexit leads people to see the opportunity to have even more of an exchange of good practice and knowledge of what is going on in different countries. That is especially true if there are going to be issues around migration and the free movement of people, and around trade.

Most of our members and I think most foundations are regional place-based funders, focusing on a given population. Only a small minority make grants internationally, or are solely topic-based.

But whatever the geography, I think there is an increasing recognition of some of the similarities in the challenges people are facing – for example, unemployment, retreating welfare states, demographic change, integration and the threat of radicalisation. There is a whole set of issues that are interconnected, and a lot of potential for learning between European foundations.

We have had two meetings of all our UK members to talk about Brexit. The first was in August, and many were still digesting what the result might mean. The second was held in the UK, with over 20 foundations attending. The feeling was that although  foundations were still coming to terms with it – there was some of that soul-searching that comes with a recognition that perhaps there is a need to rethink or recalibrate things, some were asking themselves why they didn’t know more people who had voted Leave – there was also a keen interest in hearing about what is happening elsewhere in Europe and wanting to share with European colleagues the dangers of complacency and misreading polls, and the fact that there is a growth in a populist agenda.

There was a clear consensus about the increasing polarisation of society, and that foundations had a job to do to try to combat that.

Some questioned the divisiveness of the debate, wondering if we had given licence to a way of speaking about people who are not citizens that we would not have tolerated before. But to be honest I think the whole world has become nastier in that respect. Things that would never have been said five years ago are being spouted from political pulpits across Europe and there is a need to grapple with this directly. The tensions around race, immigration, strangers and outsiders, and about who has access to things are becoming more pronounced everywhere.

I do hope we can find ways to share how people are coping with this very big change in how citizens are reacting to being left out of things. Brexit could be repeated, not necessarily through countries pulling out of a particular relationship, but by people making manifest how they feel about a leadership that is not addressing their needs.


Gerry Salole
Chief Executive
European Foundation Centre


Other articles in this series:

A view from… Scotland 
A view from... arts & culture funding 
A view from... science funding 
A view from... Northern Ireland 
A view from... Wales  
A view from... medical research 
A view from... environmental funding 


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