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Culture's role in the European Union's external relations

16.08.2012 Speech (in English) by Androulla Vassiliou, Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, on culture's role in the European Union's external relations, delivered at the First International Culture Summit in Edinburgh on 13 August 2012.

Your Excellencies,

Ministers,

The Presiding Officer,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour to be here with you to open this international summit on culture in Edinburgh.

I would like to thank the British Government, the Scottish Government, the British Council and the Edinburgh International Festival for organising this event. I would also like to give a special thanks to the Scottish Parliament for welcoming us all to their impressive home.

The Edinburgh Festival is today one of the most prestigious and ground-breaking events in the world's cultural diary. I cannot think of a better place in which to discuss the international dimension of culture than a city which welcomes so many artists from so many countries every year. And as someone who comes from the eastern Mediterranean, I particularly appreciate the symbolism of Edinburgh's role as 'Athens of the North' during the Enlightenment.

As we open the summit, I am thrilled to be among a group that brings together the spheres of policy-making and cultural creativity. We do inhabit very different worlds, each with its own language and set of rules. But I think we will learn a great deal simply by listening to one other. Therefore, I encourage everyone at this Summit to reflect on the mesmerising mosaic that is human culture, and to share ideas on how this priceless global heritage can help our peoples to live together in peace.

Navigating the world of cultural diplomacy is part of my day-to-day work. As the European Commissioner for culture, my first concern is to protect the unique patchwork of national, regional and local cultures inside the European Union. Language serves as a useful measure of our diversity. Today, the EU's 27 Member States contain 23 official languages, more than 60 regional and minority languages and more than 120 migrant languages. The Tower of Babel is still standing, tall and proud, even in 2012.

The challenge of Europe is the challenge of globalisation: how do we sustain diversity where economic and technological forces often bring homogenisation? How do we encourage the smaller players when bigger markets invite consolidation? How do we create space for the voice of culture when that of business talks so loud? The European Union has grappled with these questions from day one.

Increasingly, my work takes me outside the European Union, to the question of Europe's place in the world. And here too, I am interested not so much in the promotion of one specific culture or collection of cultures as in the progress of a certain idea of what culture means.

I do not believe that Europe's 'soft power' in the 21st century is about projecting a cultural vision of what Europe represents. Nor should it be reduced to a question of helping its artists and promoters to find new audiences.

Rather, I believe it is about taking Europe's major historic challenge – how we manage our diversity – to the global stage, and engaging our partners in the debate. Europe's openness both among its own nations and communities and towards the rest of the world should, I believe, help to shape the EU's approach to cultural diplomacy.

But before I say more about cultural diplomacy, I would like to set out why governments intervene in culture in the first place.

In the European Union, the cultural and creative sectors account for millions of jobs and some 4.5 per cent of our gross domestic product. These are fast-growing, innovative industries, and some of their leaders are among us today. In the midst of such talent and invention, one might reasonably ask how governments can usefully contribute to all of this.

What, indeed, is the role of government when it comes to culture and the arts? And what, more specifically, is the role of the European Union, a project which, in the eyes of some, has become too preoccupied with economics and finance?

In truth, this is not a new debate. Europe’s first philosophers regularly explored the place of art in society, recognising its power over people’s imagination.

Plato was suspicious of the effect that poetry could have on the soul of the young Athenian. If the purpose of education was to deliver the mind from its metaphorical cave and elevate it to the clear skies of pure, rational thought, then poetry represented a harmful distraction, and belonged to the inferior realm of illusion.

In Plato’s ideal state or polis, the role of government was therefore to control very carefully the types of drama and poetry to which young people should be exposed.

Europe has come a long way since then, and today we are proud of the autonomy and freedom that the arts enjoy in our society. In some ways this is a measure of the health and vitality of our community.

But the journey has not been an easy one, and in the darkest moments of our most recent history, the European dictators of the twentieth century put art and culture at the service of a totalitarian machine.

The contradictions of government and art are evident: one speaks the language of power and order, while the other concerns itself with truth and beauty. While government yearns for stability, art often seeks to provoke and challenge. Ironically, art is perhaps the more democratic of the two.

Even in Europe's sophisticated liberal democracies of today, critics accuse governments of feeding culture to the machine of growth and jobs and ignoring its intrinsic value – art for its own sake.

So, in the light of all these dangers, ancient and new, would it not be better if governments stayed away altogether? After all, what can the bureaucrat offer the poet? What policy can help the painter? What regulation will inspire the composer?

And yet, I believe the case for public intervention is as strong today as it has ever been, for the arts do not exist in isolation, separate from the rest of society.

This is particularly true if we take a step back to see the entire process of creation, which usually culminates in some form of interaction with an audience by means of performance, exhibition or publication.

Whether we like it or not, our societies decided long ago to organise the arts and culture. And the way in which we organise them says something about our values.

We certainly cannot legislate for inspiration or beauty, but we do develop opinions about how the results of the artistic process should be distributed and rewarded, or how our education systems should nurture creativity. This means we need to make choices, and this in turn brings us to politics.

In culture, as in any other part of society, we can, if we wish, defend a wider public interest that goes beyond the interests of individual players. In other words, we can decide that culture matters.

And this is what all European societies have concluded in the modern era. We have decided that culture represents a public good in which every citizen has a stake; it cannot and should not be a purely private affair.

The question remains how to provide public support while respecting the intimate privacy of the moment of creation, and avoiding all the dangers of government interference. What, then, do we mean by the public good?

Our starting point, I believe, is the market. Experience has taught us that the market is a wonderful tool for providing a vast range of goods and services that no government could ever produce. And history has been equally clear about the market’s limitations and shortcomings. All of this is as true for culture as it is for any other part of life.

At the heart of the market’s failure is the paradox of choice. Theory tells us that markets will produce endless choice: if someone demands it, the market will supply it. Individual tastes and desires invite the economic actors to re-design every product and service in an endless cycle of invention.

And this is precisely what has happened, so that today in Europe, many of us can afford to surround ourselves with material goods that reflect every aspect of our individual identity.

But when we come to culture, the question is whether we truly desire endless choice above all else, especially when we appear to lose quality in the process.

Television today illustrates this most clearly. Do we sincerely believe that the ability to choose between hundreds of free channels has made our lives richer and more fulfilling? Choice, surely, is more than a simple matter of quantity; and the market does not have all the answers.

Is it a coincidence that, in many countries, public broadcasters provide some of the most innovative, exciting programmes on television? Should we be surprised that public broadcasters produce some of the best drama, music and comedy? Or that they offer the best hope of independent and impartial news and documentary? Ultimately, public intervention and public money is behind this success.

Cinema tells a similar story. Do we really believe that the market, alone, would have produced the wonderful patchwork of film heritage that covers the whole of Europe? If it is difficult to talk of a single European cinema, then we can at least recognise that an attachment to publicly-funded cinema is a European value that we all share.

And yet I do not believe this is a uniquely European story. I am certain that many of us in this room would share some of these values. Many of us would agree that markets alone cannot deliver everything that a civilised society demands in the field of culture and the arts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If I wanted to spend a few moments talking about the role of government, it is because it leads us naturally to the debate on cultural diplomacy. Are we not all searching, constantly, for the public good? Are we not all trying to find that perfect balance between freedom, diversity and equality? I am convinced that most of the cultural debates we face at home are equally relevant to our external relations.

So, let me now set out my vision of culture's role in the European Union's external relations. First, we should remind ourselves of the wonderful paradox at the heart of culture: humans everywhere have created languages, symbols, arts and traditions that come to form their unique, local identity and distinguish them from their neighbour; and yet we are all united, as one, in a deep understanding of what this means. We communicate in spite of our different codes.

Culture allows us to become who we really are. It helps us to understand where we come from, and to define who we want to be. Thanks to the arts, we can transcend the here and now, and connect with something greater: the ideas of truth and beauty, the glory and tragedy of history, the depth and mystery of the human soul. Culture helps us to shape our own identity, but always in relation to the world around us.

This is why culture and the arts are such a binding force for our societies and regions across the world. They connect people in different countries and from different ethnic groups, breaking through language barriers and rising above prejudice. Through the arts, people discover shared values; they are able to have a conversation of equals.

The over-arching policy of the European Union is to promote cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue; to unlock the potential of culture for creativity and innovation; and to make full use of culture in the development of our relations with partners around the world.

As a party to the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the EU wants to develop a new and more active role for culture in Europe's international relations.

Increasingly we see culture as a major factor of political, social and economic development, and not just as a series of isolated cultural events. This is the change in approach that we want to encourage.

Europe's cultural institutes are our key partners in this effort. A number of them, like the British Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation, have launched the 'More Europe' initiative. They are organising a series of debates across Europe in order to highlight the role of culture in the EU's external relations.

The European Commission has also set up an expert group, composed of representatives from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, to reflect on a common EU strategy towards third countries. We see China as a test case for this new approach, so allow me to say a few words about what we are doing.

Earlier this year, I launched the EU's new 'High-Level People-to-People Dialogue' with China. Our shared objective is clear: to deepen the mutual understanding between our peoples by promoting closer contacts across wide areas of social and cultural life. This can only happen if we educate our young people to respect and appreciate diversity. Therefore, education, culture and youth are the three priorities of our new dialogue.

Significantly, this new initiative takes its place on an equal footing with the existing EU-China dialogues on strategy and trade. I see this as clear recognition of culture's new and privileged place in the EU's relations with the rest of the world.

At the heart of our new dialogue with China is an understanding of our growing inter-dependence: both sides are keenly aware that their common interests are constantly growing.

We stand at opposite ends of the Euro-Asian continent, with very different histories behind us, and we both value our cultural diversity very highly. Yet we face common challenges – economic, environmental, even demographic – and our cooperation is essential if we are to overcome them. And the key to successful cooperation is mutual understanding.

This is why people-to-people contacts are taking up a new role in our external relations. Rather than attempting to project a set of European cultural images onto the world stage, we are trying instead to bring the various cultural actors together so that they can exchange. It is the artist and cultural entrepreneur who occupy centre stage, and not the accumulated heritage of a single tradition. I believe these principles are valid for all of Europe's relations across the globe.

Let me now turn west. In the last couple of years, the European Union has significantly enhanced its cultural cooperation with Brazil. Our common endeavour is rooted in the principles of the UNESCO Convention.

One of our priorities is to develop the cultural and creative sectors. In June this year, a conference on the creative economy in Rio de Janeiro allowed both sides to share their experiences in this sector, and identify opportunities for further dialogue and cooperation.

Cultural heritage occupies a central place in our policy dialogue with Brazil. Both of us are fortunate to have a rich, diverse and vibrant natural and cultural heritage. By sharing strategies, expertise and policies, our dialogue will help to preserve these important resources.

Whether we are talking about Brazil or China or indeed any of our external relations, in the end it will be our citizens – our artists and cultural actors, our students and teachers – who forge new and deeper bonds between our peoples. It is they who will build the lasting bridges of trust and understanding that we, as policy makers, can only facilitate.

To support this more ambitious approach, the EU manages a number of funding programmes that promote cultural cooperation and encourage dialogue between peoples and nations.

Today's 'Culture Programme' has already been instrumental in supporting cooperation both within Europe and with partners in other parts of the world.The 'Culture Programme' aims to do three things: to promote cross-border mobility of those working in the cultural sector; to encourage the transnational circulation of cultural and artistic output; and to foster intercultural dialogue.

The countries eligible for funding include not only the 27 Member States of the European Union but also the countries of the European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), the countries applying for EU membership (Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), and the countries of the western Balkans that sign agreements with the EU.

Elsewhere, the 'Media Mundus' programme offers a forum for exchange and cooperation among professionals of the audiovisual sector across the globe. Many of you will be familiar with these programmes.

For the next funding period, from 2014 to 2020, we want to strengthen this international approach to culture. Once again, we want to move away from supporting isolated events and projects towards designing a coherent strategy.

Our new programme is called 'Creative Europe', and on behalf of the European Commission, I came forward with a legislative proposal at the end of last year. The European Parliament and the EU's national governments are now negotiating the text, and we can expect an agreement early next year.

'Creative Europe' will help the cultural and creative industries to adapt to the challenges of globalisation, exploit the opportunities of digitisation, experiment with new business models, and develop new skills.

The programme opens up new possibilities for the full participation of the countries from the EU's southern and eastern neighbourhood. Our aim is to reinforce our cultural cooperation with these nations, by extending to them the same approach in support of the cultural and creative sectors that we are adopting within the EU.

For the European Union, the relationship with our closest neighbours, to the south and the east, is essential to the stability of the region and its democratic transformation. The EU is attempting, as it always has done, to create an area of peace and prosperity within and beyond its borders – not by imposing its will but by inviting a commitment to a set of values. Culture is a central part of this effort.

The European Union has a duty to respond to the Arab spring. We have anchored our new partnerships in joint commitments to the values of democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law and social justice. And we have concentrated on promoting people-to people contacts: academic programmes and scholarships, and stronger cultural exchanges.

Beyond the immediate results of such exchanges – mutual understanding, friendship and stronger ties – we are trying to encourage a more durable, structural change. Working together with the association of European Cultural Institutes in the Middle East, we aim to help countries in the Mediterranean region to complete their democratic transition, design more effective cultural policies, and develop their own cultural and creative sectors.

Let me now conclude with a few words about what our new programme, 'Creative Europe', will do.

In some of its most vital work, ‘Creative Europe’ will support transnational projects that help cultural actors to take full advantage of digital technologies and experiment with new business models. In short, we are trying to encourage innovation.

We will promote the transnational circulation of new works by funding exhibitions and international tours, and we will continue to support literary translation.

We want to develop media literacy across Europe, so that young people are able to understand and interpret the masses of digital information that surround them every day. This is where culture meets education.

With its tools for cinema and the audiovisual industry, ‘Creative Europe’ will support the distribution of European film and encourage the co-productions that are so successful at finding new audiences across our borders. We will fund the training of industry professionals, and help them to develop business contacts across the globe. And we will continue to support independent cinemas that show European film.

The so-called 'digital shift' lies at the heart of these challenges. Together with globalisation, digitisation arguably represents the major driver of change in the cultural sector, affecting as it does the entire value chain, from creation and production to distribution and access.

Digital technologies help us to reach out to new audiences and improve access to culture. We can see unprecedented opportunities in terms of lower distribution costs and new channels for individual expression, all of which enriches cultural diversity.

But there are challenges. Digitisation can be costly, as any independent cinema will tell you. The multiplication of media outlets carries the risk of fragmenting the audience – in a Europe that is already fragmented, along linguistic lines for example – and this in turn threatens the commercial viability of traditional cultural industries. Our new programme, 'Creative Europe', is there to help address these challenges.

Last but not least, ‘Creative Europe’ will bring innovation to funding. When designing our programme, we concluded that one of the biggest challenges facing small cultural operators was finance: how do you obtain funding for a risky cultural project when you have such little collateral at your disposal and when the banks don't really understand what you are trying to do?

Therefore, with 'Creative Europe', we are proposing to create a new European loan facility that will improve the access to credit of small and medium enterprises by providing risk protection to banks. In other words, we use the public money of the EU budget to leverage private funding.

The United Kingdom and Scotland have been among the first to recognise the need and the benefits of a strategic approach to the cultural and creative sector, and we have learnt a lot from you.

We know, for instance, that what is needed is a cross-cutting approach, and for this reason the Commission will soon adopt a Communication inviting all levels of policy governance – from the local, the regional, the national up to the EU level – to develop integrated strategies in support of the cultural and creative sectors.

Such strategies must go beyond the traditional remit of ministries of culture. We can no longer work in isolated silos. We must reach out to other government policy areas like economic affairs, education, urban and regional development and territorial planning.

Excellencies,

Ministers,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Working together towards common goals is something that we Europeans have learnt to do well over the last half-century – often in the face of adversity, doubt or scepticism. Today's economic and financial worries only strengthen our determination to continue along the path.

The European project is founded upon the ambition to find unity in full respect of the diversity of the cultures and identities that compose it. This is a work that will never reach a final destination – it is a constant striving –and that is how it should be.

This is a powerful image – and arguably a universal one. It is the image of a union of diverse countries and people who believe in the power of living and working together under the values that they all share and uphold: human dignity, solidarity, tolerance, freedom of expression, respect for human rights and diversity, and dialogue among cultures.

Culture is one of the most democratic and accessible instruments at our disposal as we seek to encourage dialogue between nations. It has the ability to transcend national and ethnic frontiers, language barriers, socio-economic inequalities and the gaps between generations. This is why I am deeply committed not only to Europe's support for culture but also to culture's central place in our relations with the rest of the world.

I wish all of you a very successful and enjoyable summit.

Thank you.

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