Some weeks ago, I had the pleasure to give a guest lecture to students in a class organized by my colleague Dr Joëlla van Donkersgoed. I introduced a topic that is still relatively neglected in university curricula: a historical overview of cultural policy at the European Union (EU) level.
Considering the study programmes at the University, this is a rather unusual topic. When students learn about the European integration process, the courses focus on ‘traditional’ aspects such as economy and political institutions. Yet for 15 years or so, researchers have been interested in cultural policy at the European Communities (EC) or EU level, proposing a different perspective on European integration history. As I have spent many years researching cultural policies – though mainly at the national level – I thought that looking at the European supranational level could provide a ‘fresh’ view for me and the students.
Challenges in preparing my lecture
While preparing my lecture, I had to consider the background of the students attending the class. I inevitably had to make choices and supposed that the students had never participated in a course about European integration. They would not have been familiar with some concepts or names I dropped during the lecture. So, I also included a quick and simplified overview of the differences between the EC and the EU. I also stressed that the Council of Europe (CoE) was a different organisation, created in 1949. Only then could I move forward, knowing that whenever I mentioned any of these organisations, they would at least know how to contextualise them.
While preparing my lecture, I was wondering whether I should use ‘cultural action’ instead of ‘cultural policy’, the latter referring, in my opinion, to a set of concrete actions by a government, with a clear recognition that this is a competence of the government in question. In the past, I often advanced the definition by David Bell and Kate Oakley, who wrote that „cultural policy is what governments at various scales choose to do or not to do in relation to culture“.1Bell, David, and Kate Oakley. Cultural Policy. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015. It has served me quite well until now. In the literature consulted for my presentation, I noticed the use of both expressions depending on the authors, sometimes interchangeably, sometimes using ‘cultural policy’ only when referring to the EU. The authors did not explain their choice. In this blog post, I will use ‘cultural action’ for the EC and ‘cultural policy’ for the EU, as the latter had a legal basis for cultural initiatives.
EC cultural action: From theory to practice
The EC took the first steps in the development of a cultural action in the 1970s, but they remained limited to a discursive level. Before that, the EC had barely shown interest in matters related to culture and cultural heritage. The Treaty of Rome (1957) did not include any explicit basis for EC cultural action and viewed culture through an economic lens, i.e., the trade of cultural goods and services and limitations on exporting cultural objects of historical and artistic significance.2Calligaro, Oriane, and Kiran Klaus Patel. ‘From Competition to Cooperation in Promoting European Culture: The Council of Europe and European Union since 1950’. Journal of European Integration History 23, no. 1 (2017): 129–51. https://doi.org/10.5771/0947-9511-2017-1-129.
In the 1970s, the EC produced two noteworthy official documents. The first one was the Declaration on European Identity by the Nine Foreign Ministers in December 1973. According to the signatories, to define “European identity”, it was also necessary to review “the common heritage”. At the same time, the ministers stressed that “the rich variety” of the “national cultures” should be preserved. The document remained vague: neither common heritage nor European identity were defined. It was not legally binding. The second document was a resolution on the protection of European cultural heritage by the European Parliament (EP). The text referred not only to the Declaration of 1973 but also to initiatives of the CoE and the UNESCO. According to Oriane Calligaro, these documents reflected the wish of the EC to add a ‘human’ dimension to the organisation.3Calligaro, Oriane. Negotiating Europe: EU Promotion of Europeanness since the 1950s. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. The 1970s were a time of crisis and there was a lack of consensus among the member states. However, considering their mention in the EP resolution, I also think that the UNESCO and the CoE might have played a role. In the 1970s, the UNESCO launched its World Heritage Site programme and the CoE organised initiatives in favour of architectural heritage. At the European level, the CoE was the leading organisation in the field of culture. This changed slowly from the 1980s onwards.4Calligaro, Oriane. ‘From “European Cultural Heritage” to “Cultural Diversity”?: The Changing Core Values of European Cultural Policy’. Politique Européenne, no. 45 (2014): 60–85. https://doi.org/10.3917/poeu.045.0060.
A qualitative change came about in the 1980s. The accession of Greece to the EC in 1981 was a defining moment. The poor conservation state of the Acropolis in Athens led to debates in the European Parliament and reflections on the need to protect cultural heritage in Europe. Some MEPs presented the Acropolis as the cradle of democracy or considered the EP as a distant descendant of the Athenian Parliament. In 1983, the first significant subsidy of the EC was allocated to the preservation of the Acropolis. In 1984, the EC created the European Historical Sites and Monuments fund. While there was no official definition of European heritage or European identity and the criteria remained vague, the support scheme showed a bias in favour of sites related to Christianity and to Roman and Greek Antiquity.5Calligaro, Oriane. ‘From “European Cultural Heritage” to “Cultural Diversity”?: The Changing Core Values of European Cultural Policy’. Politique Européenne, no. 45 (2014): 60–85. https://doi.org/10.3917/poeu.045.0060. This was a Western European perspective on European heritage.
Cultural heritage was, however, not the only area with new initiatives. In 1983, the EC member states adopted the European City of Culture initiative (later European Capital of Culture, ECOC). In 1986, the European Commission launched the MEDIA programme to develop, promote, and distribute European audiovisual works. The end of the 1980s was generally quite crucial for the audiovisual sector. European policies (EC and CoE) in this area also influenced cultural policy in Luxembourg.
EU cultural policy: Towards a ‘Europeanization’ of cultural heritage
The next important step in the history of EU cultural policy is the Treaty of Maastricht signed in 1992. For the first time, the EU received a legal basis for its cultural action (article 128), such as the “conservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage of European significance”. Nevertheless, the EU hat to tread a narrow path, because cultural policy was still a matter of the member states and the EU could only launch initiatives with their consent. Thus, the EU has based its cultural action on cooperation, includes support programmes, or creates loose frameworks. The EU launched three programmes to support several areas of culture, such as Raphael for cultural heritage. These programmes have been replaced by succeeding funding schemes: Culture 2000 (2000-2006), the Culture programme (2007-2013), and Creative Europe (since 2014).
Another change in the 1990s concerned the perspective on cultural heritage. Until then, the privileged type of heritage was not only Western (a consequence of the composition of the member states) but also charged with positive values of European identity. In the mid-1990s, the European Parliament (EP) enlarged this perspective by including negative dimensions of European history, i.e. Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps. In 1995, the EP launched the European Holocaust Remembrance Day.6Calligaro, Oriane. ‘From “European Cultural Heritage” to “Cultural Diversity”?: The Changing Core Values of European Cultural Policy’. Politique Européenne, no. 45 (2014): 60–85. https://doi.org/10.3917/poeu.045.0060. With the EU enlargements to Eastern Europe in the 2000s, and while increasing the diversity of cultures and cultural identities within the EU, negative heritage was extended to encompass the memory of Stalinism and communist dictatorships.
Since the 2000s, the EU has made attempts at “Europeanizing” cultural heritage as a counter-model to nationalist interpretations, but also as a means to improve its image and to contribute to the education of EU citizens. I showed the students the most important examples of EU cultural heritage initiatives during my lecture. I asked them if they had heard about them, but no one had (in hindsight, it would have been interesting to distribute a short questionnaire beforehand to gauge their knowledge and to have concrete data).
The most important initiatives and projects of the EU were the following:
European Heritage Days (launched by the Council of Europe, but since 1999 a joint initiative of the CoE and the EU);
European Heritage Awards (since 2002);
European Heritage Label (since 2013, though a first attempt several years before had failed);
European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018 (in the official discourse of the Year, cultural heritage was linked to environment and sustainability, and to economic rationales such as job creation).
The European Heritage Label has been awarded to various sites in the EU. The official list has been continuously extended. While it focuses on the most emblematic sites and buildings, it includes negative heritage. An example is Camp Westerbork, among the first sites that received the label in 2013. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, it served as a transit camp for persecuted Jews before being sent to concentration camps.
An example of EU cultural policy: The European Capital of Culture initiative
The ECOC was created in 1983, during a difficult period for the European Communities, facing increasing scepticism and a lack of consensus among the member states. The aim was to promote European identity and increase support for European integration.
Athens was the first city to host the ECOC in 1985. Until 1989, the host cities already had a high cultural offer, were emblematic and, in some cases, capitals of the respective countries. For this reason, the first ECOCs did not bring about real achievements.
Glasgow 1990 marked an important event in the history of the ECOCs.7Sianos, Alexandros. ‘European Capitals of Culture: A “Soft Power” Resource for the European Union?’ International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 5, no. 1 (2017): 1–32. https://doi.org/10.18352/hcm.496. For the first time, the event was not hosted by a city already known to be a cultural centre, but a city that experienced an industrial decline. Glasgow 1990 became a model for subsequent ECOCs. It was not only the first time that long-term objectives were defined, but it also linked expectations of urban regeneration to the ECOC.
Since then, the success of the ECOC has certainly resided in its longevity. In my opinion, at least two reasons may explain this. The first reason is that every level, from the EU to local authorities, can benefit or hope to benefit from the event. The expectations and objectives of each actor are not mutually exclusive, even if they may be very different. While the EU promotes its image and hopes to contribute to a European identity, local politicians are interested in the effects of the ECOC on their city (urban regeneration, tourism, economic growth, and job creation).
The second reason is a consequence of the EU’s approach to cultural policy and its limits at the supranational level. The ECOC programme is based on a very loose framework. This framework has been modified over the years, mainly in 2014. However, there is, for instance, no minimum financial requirement, and a host city can choose how the ECOC is organised. As a result, ECOCs can vary from one city to another.
The ECOC can have potential benefits for the host cities, such as the development of infrastructures and long-term initiatives. Economic growth may also be a benefit, but I am unsure whether it is sustainable. One example of a long-term positive impact, despite organisational issues, is Luxembourg 1995. Political authorities became aware of the lack of cultural infrastructure in Luxembourg. In the following years, the cultural sector underwent professionalisation, structures were created, and a series of cultural laws were passed.
However, many ECOCs were also problematic, despite positive evaluations in official discourses. Unfortunately, we have no overarching study of all the ECOCs organised until today, providing a better overview of the positive and the negative impacts. From the case studies that exist so far, however, we can infer several recurring issues:
1. Focus on already privileged neighbourhoods of cities and gentrification
For Marseille-Provence 2013, the disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the north of Marseille played no part in the ECOC, except for minor initiatives.8Périgois, Samuel. ‘L’évaluation de la capitale européenne de la culture Marseille Provence 2013?: retour sur expériences’. L’Observatoire 46, no. 1 (2015): 16. https://doi.org/10.3917/lobs.046.0016. A rapper from Marseille, Keny Arkana, made a song about the growing disparities and social inequalities in the city, criticising gentrification and the ECOC in Capitale de la Rupture (2012), a wordplay with the French version of ECOC, Capitale (européenne) de la Culture.
Liverpool 2008 is another example of the disparities and the focus on specific areas.9Boland, Philip. ‘“Capital of Culture—You Must Be Having a Laugh!” Challenging the Official Rhetoric of Liverpool as the 2008 European Cultural Capital’. Social & Cultural Geography 11, no. 7 (November 2010): 627–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649365.2010.508562. The case of Quiggins, an old warehouse that became a hub for local entrepreneurs and alternative cultural industries, is quite striking. To redevelop the city centre and build a shopping complex as part of the project Liverpool One, Quiggins was forced to move out and transfer to another area in Liverpool (it closed sometime later). ECOC contributed to the destruction of a part of local culture and to the privatisation of public space. At the same time, the culture capital was virtually inexistent in the poorer neighbourhoods.
2. Focus on ‘high culture’ and ignoring local culture
Rap music is an important and successful part of local culture in Marseille. It is certainly not by coincidence that it was precisely a rapper criticising the ECOC there. However, in Marseille-Provence 2013, rap music barely played a role, while much money went to internationally recognised artists.
3. Lack of cooperation and tensions
During the ECOC in the Romanian town of Timişoara in 2021, local actors criticised the lack of transparency in the organisation process and a lack of collaboration. Furthermore, the team of the organising body was replaced with a board of nominated and non-elected people.10Dargaud, Amandine. ‘Timişoara, de la petite Vienne du Banat à la Capitale européenne de la culture: Les mises en récit d’une ville postsocialiste roumaine dans un contexte d’européanisation’. EchoGéo, no. 62 (31 December 2022). https://doi.org/10.4000/echogeo.24301.
Esch 2022 may serve as an example, too, as the initial organising team was replaced. While it was meant to include the southern industrial region of Luxembourg and some municipalities on the French side of the border, I also heard criticisms that some towns in the area felt disadvantaged due to the focus on Esch-sur-Alzette. However, a critical study of Esch 2022 and its (long-term) impact is needed and maybe only possible with some hindsight.
For a different perspective on European integration history
It was the first time that I gave a lecture on EC/EU cultural policy. It was a very fruitful exercise for me, and I hope it was also instructive for the students. It was important to me that the students did not only learn that different perspectives on European integration history exist, but that a critical view and a nuanced assessment of official discourse is an essential part of research.
Bell, David, and Kate Oakley. Cultural Policy. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015.
Boland, Philip. “‘Capital of Culture—You Must Be Having a Laugh!’ Challenging the Official Rhetoric of Liverpool as the 2008 European Cultural Capital.” Social & Cultural Geography 11, no. 7 (2010): 627–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649365.2010.508562.
Calligaro, Oriane. Negotiating Europe: EU Promotion of Europeanness since the 1950s. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Calligaro, Oriane. “From ‘European Cultural Heritage’ to ‘Cultural Diversity’?: The Changing Core Values of European Cultural Policy.” Politique Européenne, no. 45 (2014): 60–85. https://doi.org/10.3917/poeu.045.0060.
Calligaro, Oriane, and Kiran Klaus Patel. “From Competition to Cooperation in Promoting European Culture: The Council of Europe and European Union since 1950.” Journal of European Integration History 23, no. 1 (2017): 129–51. https://doi.org/10.5771/0947-9511-2017-1-129.
Dargaud, Amandine. “Timişoara, de la petite Vienne du Banat à la Capitale européenne de la culture: Les mises en récit d’une ville postsocialiste roumaine dans un contexte d’européanisation.” EchoGéo, no. 62 (December 31, 2022). https://doi.org/10.4000/echogeo.24301.
Périgois, Samuel. “L’évaluation de la capitale européenne de la culture Marseille Provence 2013?: retour sur expériences.” L’Observatoire 46, no. 1 (2015): 16. https://doi.org/10.3917/lobs.046.0016.
Sassatelli, Monica. Becoming Europeans: Cultural Identity and Cultural Policies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Sianos, Alexandros. “European Capitals of Culture: A ‘Soft Power’ Resource for the European Union?” International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 5, no. 1 (2017): 1–32. https://doi.org/10.18352/hcm.496.
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