What Kind of Cultural Initiatives Should the EU Focus on?

April 7, 2019



“Our cultural heritage is more than the memory of our past; it is the key to our future.” said Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport in relation to the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018.


But what makes a cultural heritage initiative successful?


Best measures for the success of an initiative include permanence and awareness. To make sure the European Year of Cultural Heritage leaves a policy imprint beyond 2018, the European Commission, in collaboration with key partners, is running long-term projects around 10 themes, called the 10 European Initiatives. The 10 European Initiatives correspond to 4 principles that define what the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 stands for: Engagement, Sustainability, Protection and Innovation.” 


Within the European Commission, departments dealing with different policy areas are contributing to the initiatives through their respective policy initiatives and funding programmes. To name a few examples, the Erasmus+ programme and its eTwinning scheme, Horizon 2020, Europe for Citizens, Natura 2000, the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) and the URBACT cooperation programme are all building blocks of the European Initiatives. Sadly, only few people have ever heard of any of these programmes (if, only about Erasmus+).


Why is creating and promoting a shared heritage so difficult?


In the beginning, the European Union was most of all a peace project. To avoid new wars and conflicts on European soil and to bring the Europeans together. This noble goal was mutually approved all over Europe. Now in year 2019, most Europeans are born in prosperous and peaceful times and differences between countries, be them cultural, economical and political differences become more and more visible and prevalent. Attempts to display a shared European Culture are rejected by people who are afraid to lose their national identity. Populists exploit this sentiment by warning from European dictate and non-elected commissioners that want to take autonomy and control from national states. A political union was never and is not mutually accepted by the member states and Brussels now has to decide which path to go, whether moving further towards a political union or slowing down this process. Certainly, as Brexit and polls in Italy show overstraining people’s patience increases Euroscepticism.





According to a poll of nearly 28,000 Europeans commissioned by the European Parliament, just 44 percent of Italians surveyed said they would vote to stay in the EU, the lowest percentage of all 28 member states – including the UK, which is actually leaving, and where 53 percent of respondents said they would vote to remain if they had the chance.


How does heritage have anything to do with Euroscepticism?


A European Union for everyone has also to consider reasonable and justified critic on its mandate and has to step out of its role of an intangible bureaucracy in Brussels. Just like Economics, Politics and Legislation, Culture has a strong impact on people’s life. In contrast to the other fields mentioned, cultural debates are almost always connected with emotions. Cultural heritage programs should be visible for anyone and it should be communicated that these programs are only possible thanks to the EU. Instead of fostering a common European culture maybe EU could incentivize people to get to know other cultures and to embrace the diversity of Europe:  Free language courses or free Interrail tickets for students turning 18 years old could decrease hurdles for people to get to know each other. That would give everyone, no matter the financial abilities of the family, the opportunity to connect the European idea with a personal experience. (https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2018/01/15/we-dont-exist-to-them-do-we-why-working-class-people-voted-for-brexit/)


Apart from this, student exchanges should receive more attention, or even become a natural part of a students live. The EU should finance these exchange programs and support young people learning a new language. Not just the children traveling, but also the (host)families, helping to organize, would be involved and benefit from these experiences. Certainly, nobody should be forced to study abroad, but maybe it could become the “normal” case, not depending on a family’s income. Children of all social classes should be able to participate.


A successful cultural heritage initiative in Europe was the introduction of European Capitals of Culture. This programme was launched in the summer of 1985 with Athens being the first title-holder. Instead of praising one European Culture, each city in Europe has the chance to portray its cultural uniqueness: Apart from famous cities like Florence, Berlin and Paris there is also the chance for less known European cities, like Sibiu (2007) in Romania, Essen (2010) in Germany or Leeuwarden (2018) in the Netherlands. People from all over Europe and the world travel to get to know these cities, to understand why this city earns the title of Cultural Capital.


Whilst the idea of formulating cultural policy at European level first arose back in the 1970s, it was not until 1991 that culture was given an official role in the European integration process, through Article 151 of the Maastricht Treaty: "The Community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore.”


In all probability the form of words used in Article 151 of the Maastricht Treaty arose from a conflict between national sensitivity, regionalist traditions and supranational idealism. In the current balance of power in the union the first tends to be stronger than any of the others. When the French talk of culture they mean Racine, while the Italians mean Petrarch and Dante.


If the European Union wishes us to belong together and to create the feeling in us, that we feel that we do so, it might think about reorienting its cultural policy and its considerable spending power away from modish but rickety trinational contemporary art collaborations. Instead, it should be seeking to make available, more often and for a broader audience, the best that has been thought and said (and sung, painted and danced) by twenty-five centuries of Greeks, Romans, Dutch, Spanish, Germans, Italians, French, Czechs and Poles.


As stated in the website of European Year of Cultural Heritage, “Through cherishing our cultural heritage, we can discover our diversity and start an inter-cultural conversation about what we have in common.” 


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