The urgent need for dialogue between culture and European politics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As the crisis bites on cultural budgets, artists and political leaders must work towards greater integration of culture in future EU policies and budgetary orientations, argues a high-level group of European artists launched at the request of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

This commentary was sent to EURACTIV by the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (Bozar).

Signatories include: Rem Koolhaas (Dutch architect); Frédéric Martel (French writer and sociologist); Radu Mihaileanu (Franco-Romanian filmmaker); Pere Portabella (Spanish filmmaker); Malgorzata Szczesniak (Polish stage designer); Krzysztof Warlikowski (Polish stage director); Luc Tuymans (Belgian painter); Jordi Savall (Spanish musician); Vasco Graça Moura (President of the Belem Cultural Centre, Portuguese writer, poet and former MEP); Paul Dujardin (Director the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels); Emilio Rui Vilar (President of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Portugal); Patrick Zelnik (Founder and President of the creative company ‘Naïve’); Romeo Castellucci (Italian stage director).

"In these times of economic and financial crisis, we are left with just one thing: culture,' declared Belgian artist Luc Tuymans recently.

The European Union has reached a key moment in its history, a moment when dialogue with creative people has become a matter of extreme urgency and a vital condition for its long-term survival. The only solution to the crisis of confidence and solidarity currently sweeping across the continent is more ‘culture’ as a means of building bridges between the peoples or Europe, including the young.

The Spanish musician Jordi Savall believes we are facing a risk of 'complete breakdown' in the relationship between culture and politics. At a time when economic and social crises, coupled with the already overloaded schedules of both politicians and artists, make the relationship between these two interdependent worlds increasingly difficult, there has never before been a greater need for rapprochement, especially at European Union level.

Rather than merely being the icing on the cake, culture is one of the fundamental solutions needed in order to 're-enchant' Europe at every level and prevent the word from becoming synonymous with crisis. Politicians must restore culture’s credibility and its real symbolic, social and economic value.

In many respects, artists and others engaged in the creative industries are in a privileged – but often undervalued – position. The work of artists such as Jan Fabre or Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker suggests new ways of seeing our society. Filmmakers like Danny Boyle and Wim Wenders build bridges between people and communities, while contributing to the excellence and exclusiveness that our continent inspires. At the same time, the ingenuity of designers like Philippe Starck stimulate innovation in many different social and economic spheres and help pave the way for tomorrow’s trends.

By investing more in culture and its creative talents, the EU would produce a real competitive advantage in a globalised word that lacks innovative ideas and vision.

Strengthening the links between Europe and culture would firstly mean enhancing the continent’s self-image and creating a better understanding between member states and their citizens, thereby leading to greater dialogue, intercultural tolerance and social cohesion. The increasing disenchantment with the 'Europe' project and citizens’ indignation are reminders of the urgent need not only for jobs but for stories that unify Europe – like those tales of the Brothers Grimm – and build bridges between its citizens which do more than the euro to build bridges between communities.

We have to raise people’s awareness of this project, its essence and the values it promotes: diversity, cultural richness or solidarity. Moreover, culture is there to remind us that Europe is a complex structure, presenting a constant challenge that requires everyone’s critical and objective thinking. Let us reaffirm the role of culture as a mediator, making its citizens more aware of their past and future and making it easier for them to grasp the complexity of the present. Our common destiny that will forge this unique project, “Europe”, depends on this.

Those values which we artists defend and champion also reinforce the way in which Europe is perceived beyond its borders. We only need look at the impact of Flemish painting, Baroque music, or the worldwide success of Amélie Poulain and Umberto Eco. Wherever in the world our work takes us, we find respect for and enormous expectations of the “Europe” project and what it stands for culturally: An approach of the world which can only emerge through a spirit of dialogue and constant openness. As the European Parliament made clear in a 2011 resolution on the subject, culture is an essential tool for helping to change perceptions and promote European interests and values internationally.

Finally, let us not forget the economic dimension of European culture and creativity, which has lately gained increasing recognition in political circles. Recent statistics indicate that the cultural and creative industries – from theatre to architecture to music and design – represent 4.5% of Europe’s GDP and 3.8% of its jobs, while our continent is among the world’s leading exporters of creative goods and services.

At the invitation of Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in late 2011 we met him together with the commissioner for Culture, Androulla Vassiliou, to discuss all these challenges. In 2004, his first year in post, Barroso stated that 'the EU has reached a stage in its history at which the cultural dimension can no longer be ignored' and posed the crucial question: 'What can Europe do for culture, and what can culture do for Europe?' Eight years later, our discussions confirmed his willingness to press ahead and explore ways of stimulating this sector, still in need of more recognition and support from politicians.

Despite its limited jurisdiction, the European Commission has ambitions in the field of culture, as demonstrated by its recent proposal for a new programme for 2014–2020 entitled Creative Europe, a cultural support initiative with a budget of €1.8 billion (of which €900 million will be allocated to cinema), an increase of 40% for culture within the EU’s overall budget.

Nevertheless, the total sum earmarked for culture by the EU is still inadequate. Direct aid to cultural projects only accounts for 0.05% of the budget for 2007–2013, i.e. around €0.13 per European citizen per year. By comparison, European support for agriculture represents around 42% of the same budget. This disproportion reflects a lack of vision for the continent’s future, and calls for a fairer financial redistribution over the long term.

At the same time, we also regret the absence of culture in other key domains such as EU foreign policy. This at a time when culture has become a priority for developing countries such as China, whose Chinese Language Council is about to open 1000 Confucius Institutes by 2020 to manage the country’s cultural diplomacy across the world. Furthermore, there are many issues, all of which can only be solved at EU level, including support for artisans and creative SMEs, the status of foundations, the problems of media convergence and media monopolies, protection of cultural and linguistic diversity, global access to culture, copyright protection or the digital revolution.

All these issues demand ongoing dialogue between the cultural and policy fields. As 2012 begins and following our first discussion with Barroso, we call for continuing dialogue and the setting up of regular, long-term exchanges between artists and policymakers such as Barroso, the Council President Herman Van Rompuy, and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Such a coming together is a longstanding dream shared not only by the cultural sector but by the public and policy-makers, starting with the Commission president. Dialogue must be pursued under two headings:

  • Our contribution to European integration and Europe’s image both inside and outside our borders.
  • Solutions to current challenges facing artists and culture in general, working in close conjunction with various cultural lobbies in Brussels.

Together, artists and political leaders must produce a future vision for a Europe of culture while working towards greater integration of culture in future EU policies and budgetary orientations – starting with the Creative Europe programme. Such an example set at the highest level, must be followed at national level, thereby encouraging similar initiatives.

Finally, the association of culture with high-level decision-makers will send a strong signal to disenchanted citizens that EU policymakers are no longer disconnected from civil society, but still call on artists’ critical thinking to innovate, write new narratives and see beyond the frameworks established by the ratings agencies.

According to one survey, 92% of EU citizens think that culture and cultural exchanges should play a more important role in Europe. It is worth the effort, for Europeans are in danger of one day in the future waking up to find they have no common ground. Culture must be acknowledged as an essential pillar for the sustainable development of our societies – and not a needless expense in these times of crisis.

It is only through more focus on culture that Europe can be re-enchanted and its citizens united around a shared project. Time is fast running out for the European Union and its member states to understand the importance of artists. They are the allies, custodians and linchpins of 21st-century Europe."

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