European Culture Forum

Brussels, 19 April 2016

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Ms Costa,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to welcome you to our European Culture Forum. I am very happy to see so many of you here. This is a very encouraging sign of the power of culture. Your presence here sends an important message.

I would like to convey a warm welcome to Ms Silvia Costa, Chair of the Culture and Education Committee of the European Parliament. I would also like to welcome the Deputy Minister for European Integration of Ukraine, Mr Andrii Vitrenko. Later today, we will be happy to welcome Dario Franceschini, Italian Minister of Culture. And tomorrow, the High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Günther Oettinger will also join us, showing the importance that the Commission attaches to culture.

But now, please allow me to stress how honoured I am to have Mr Boris Pahor with us today, one of Europe’s great writers. He has lived through Europe's darkest hours. Throughout his life, he has opposed totalitarianism in all its forms. His powerful works testify to the fight of the human spirit to prevail upon hatred, intolerance and cruelty. We look forward to hearing his words today.

And let me finally warmly thank and welcome the artists who will bring us very special performances during these two days.

Ladies and gentlemen,

this edition of the Forum takes place in very challenging times. A number of issues are testing our ability and will to live together: violent extremism and the threat it poses to our fundamental values, economic stagnation, social inequalities and the unprecedented number of people seeking refuge in Europe are only some of them.

All these challenges fundamentally touch our sense of identity. They give rise to difficult questions and force us to re-examine how we see the world – and ourselves.

We have been through periods like this before, and that helps to make me optimistic that we will overcome the current issues. European integration is not a linear progress. It happens in fits and starts, as we keep learning to live together – from the local right through to the national and international level. And it has come too far to unravel. Not only because of the strong economic and political ties that bind our countries together. Not only because we realise that there are issues we can only tackle by cooperating, like violent extremism or climate change.

What will keep us together are the personal networks and relationships we have built. The fact that young people form Germany and France can get together and become friends – not just in isolated cases, but in large numbers – may seem banal to the Erasmus generation. It would have been unimaginable 70 years ago.

These personal relationships are the foundations of European integration, as is our sense of our European identity. Of course we all have multiple identities – local, regional, national, religious, ethnic, cultural identities. Over time, we have become experts at balancing these identities. Our European identity is one of them, even though we may not always be aware of it.

And this European identity finds its strongest expression in European culture. That is why culture has such a vital role in tackling the challenges facing us today.

Culture provides space for freedom. Culture can drive change. And intercultural dialogue helps us learn to live together. By placing it at the heart of our cultural policy, we will harness its power to create a stronger and more inclusive European Union, a Union that also plays a more active role on the international scene.

Our cultural heritage is a powerful, vital expression of our identities – as Europeans, and as human beings. That is why it is critical to protect and preserve it. If we lose important parts of our history, how can we build our future? The EU is therefore working to help protect heritage sites in countries such as Iraq and Syria, where we have been witnessing atrocious acts of destruction and looting. But we also have a big task here in Europe, preserving heritage and, crucially, ensuring that people rediscover it, learn about it – and see it as their own.

That is why I am pleased that the European Commission will present a proposal to make 2018 the European Year of Cultural Heritage. I am convinced that it would be a good opportunity to boost awareness of and promote education about our cultural heritage. And I will be happy to start the legislative procedure and to work with Member States, the European Parliament and with stakeholders like you to make this happen.

The power of European identity and intercultural dialogue will be a thread running through discussions over the coming two days, whether they are about the role of culture in fostering social cohesion, its potential to boost innovation, economic growth and job creation or its relevance in making Europe a stronger global actor.

Right after this opening session, for example, the first panel will focus on how culture can help to overcome the risk of fragmentation in our societies. Culture is an excellent vehicle to convey who we are, how we live, and what the fundamental values are that underpin our societies: freedom, democracy, human dignity and mutual respect.

That is why cultural actions and intercultural dialogue can help us reach out to young people at risk of being excluded and possibly even turning to violent extremism.

They can also help newly arrived migrants and refugees find their place in our societies. Last November, all EU Ministers agreed with my proposal to promote the integration of migrants and refugees through culture and the arts. A group of Member State experts is already at work and will deliver recommendations by the end of this year.

To make sure that we focus on the most effective instruments, we also want to listen to the voice of civil society through our "Voices of Culture" programme, in which I know many of you are involved. 

And we are making available EUR 1.6 million under the Creative Europe programme, for cultural projects promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants. This Forum will help us to better understand what else, or what more, we can do.

Another session will look into how culture and the cultural and creative sectors can lead to innovation and economic growth. With our work on the Digital Single Market, we wish to free up European creativity, at all levels. This means giving citizens easier access to cultural works, but it also means ensuring that the industry remains competitive. And it means offering a better deal for creators – this is essential in my view. Europe should be the best place in the world for creators.

And this year's Forum will have a special focus on cultural diplomacy. Together with the High Representative and Vice-President Mogherini, I am about to present a new strategic approach for a more effective cultural cooperation with our partners. It involves working more closely together with Member States and with civil society. And it will focus on cultural relations based on co-creation, sharing and listening. It is an approach that will result in deeper and longer lasting ties, built on mutual understanding and trust.

It is an approach that we have already started to implementing. Only three days ago I was in Iran – together with the High Representative and other Commissioners – in order to open a new chapter in relations between Europe and Iran. Culture was among the main issues that we discussed. And this was important: thanks to cultural cooperation we can hope to make further progress in building this complex but vital relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen,

living together will always be a difficult task. It forces us to come to terms with each other’s customs and beliefs.  And it forces us to re-evaluate our own identity, time and time again. Globalisation and its profound effects on our lives have made this process more complex. 

As Europeans, we have a strong, shared culture that can help us overcome division and build a strong, diverse, inclusive Europe. A Europe that stands up for its fundamental values and continues the dialogue that helps us understand each other and ourselves – both here, in our communities, and in the world. 

I know I can rely on you, the cultural sector, to be a vital part of this endeavour.

Thank you.