Dry the Swamp of Ignorance European Culture: a task for the eu

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Dry the Swamp of Ignorance
European Culture: a task for the EU

by Dragan Klaic

- Have we been fighting against the Moscow Diktat only to succumb to

Brussels, ask the concerned Hungarian intellectuals?
- We knew very well how to defend the Catholic soul of our national culture

against godless Communism, say some Polish colleagues, but are we going to

save it from the Brussels bureaucrats?
- How will we sustain our small national culture on the EU cultural market

of 450 million consumers, asks a choir of Slovene, Estonian, Lithuanian and

Latvian culture experts, coming all from nations of less than 2 million

inhabitants each.

And Czechs and Slovaks, now separated as cultural realms and as states, are

as nervous about the prospects of their national culture as are many Danes,

Swedes or Portuguese. In Barcelona and in Cardiff they prefer to preach the

gospel of regional culture that reflects the separate ethnic identity of the

Catalans and the Welsh respectively, and in Northern Italy, Lega Nord‚s

fantasy of "Padania" couples regional fiscal exemption to a separate

cultural realm, spared the meddling of "Roma ladrona", the thieving


National or European culture?

National culture, once perceived as a foundation of the national state and

its best ornament, has become a troubled notion. Identitary anxieties are

feed by globalization and European integration and by migration that has

turned solid national states into tense multicultural societies. But if the

national cultures are to flow into some amorphous European culture, what is

then its nature, profile and perspective, how can it preserve vitality and

diversity of its components? A chimerical image of an official Euroculture,

over-regulated and uniform, bland and boring, prompts conferences and

symposia, held every weekend about these topics across the continent,

while most Europeans care more about unemployment, inflation, crime and

terrorism than about „the values and norms‰ of European culture.

Politicians refer to European culture in more pompous moments, when they

seek words to say something positive about the European integration but

their only real cultural concern is how to strengthen the position of own

national cultural industry against the assault of the US competition. They

know that the ultimate battlefield will be the World Trade Organization and

that they must oppose its liberalizing zeal together with other EU

governments - if they are to make a strong stand and preserve what has been

the only plausible and palpable common cultural element of Europe since the

World War 2: cultural policy as part of public policy and government

subsidies to culture, distributed for the sake of innovation and diversity

and in order to facilitate the participation in culture of all citizens. In

Western Europe, this government commitment to cultural investment has been

weakened by the shrinking of the welfare state; in East and Central Europe

it has been much thinned out by the transition from communist ideological

monopoly to market economy.

Minister Bot's Berlin surprise

On the eve of the Dutch EU Presidency, our Minister of Foreign Affairs Ben

Bot pleaded in a speech at the Humboldt University in Berlin that EU should

be involved in fewer fields in order to take care of the remaining business

much better. As one field from which EU should withdraw he mentioned

culture. The media ignored the intricacies of his argument and focused on

his qualification of the EU as a "federation in the making". But what could

better than culture federate 25 member states and 450 million EU citizens

from Galway to Przemysl and from Utsjoki to La Valetta? Wouldn't culture

connect them deeper than the same euro bills in their valets and the

communality of their consumer impulses? And what can confirm the sense of

being European to millions of those who still live outside the new borders

of the EU, in Tirana, Uzhgorod, Belgrade or Moscow - if not culture?

Moldavians, for instance, are today isolated and pauperized under an

anachronistic communist government, but their capital Chisinau was the

cradle of Yiddish theater and boosted opera performances and symphonic

concerts at the beginning of the 20th century, so that this remembrance of

their kinship with European cultures is the only European good they still

posses. And Georgians and Armenians will similarly invoke as their European

credentials first the Christian faith and then culture.

So what is prompting minister Bot to plea for the EU to pool out from

culture when the timid EU cultural program disposes with only eur 34 million

a year, a mere 0.03% of the EU budget? Contrary to Bot‚s plea, the EU

should enhance the cultural diversity in Europe by supporting multilateral

cultural cooperation, if it wants to alleviate the identitary obsessions of

the citizens and counter their insecurities, if it wants to bridge the gap

between the large and small members states, between rich and poor cultural

systems. Otherwise, grudges, jealousies and bickering will constantly

undermine the Union, let it sink in ignorance, stereotypes and prejudices

most Europeans nourish about each other. What can make the citizens of the

EU trust each other if not a better cultural knowledge and understanding of

the other Europeans? A raised degree of intercultural competence that helps

them live peacefully next to a migrant neighbor and share the same

aspirations with a fellow European residing 2000 km away - this deserves the

investment of the local government as much as of the EU.

With the EU enlargement with 10 members states now officially completed, one

could imagine cultural expansion instead of Bot‚s retrenchment: Houses of

European Culture opening up in Vilnius, Bratislava and Tallinn in order to

reassert the European character of their cultural traditions and speed up

their reintegration in the Europen cultural space to which they once firmly

belonged. This would help eliminate the backlog created by the decades of

Cold War and ideological monopoly and make sure the local creativity

benefits from the best European practices in international cultural


As a life long diplomat, minister Bot could also envisage the EU involvement

in cultural matters from a viewpoint grounded outside the EU itself. What

does European culture look alike, seen from Istanbul, Cairo or Moscow?

Beyond promotion and propaganda

Most inhabitants of those cities cannot probably discern European culture

or cultures neatly from an amorphous notion of a Western culture, shaped

prevailingly on the American model, and carried over by the cultural

industry and especially through the media. Since the war in Iraq, much of

the angry anti-Americanism in the Muslim and especially the Arab world

manifest itself as violent anti-Westernism, engulfing Europe in the turmoil.

If the EU wants to prevent Huntington's idea of a "clash of civilizations"

becoming a reality and if it is striving to develop a common foreign and

security policy, culture better becomes one of its key pillars. Patient

dialogue, a range of added creative and collaborative opportunities and an

investment in development of the civil society would yield more results than

the efforts to impose own cultural industry, cultural imperialism, culture

disguising propaganda and damping of shlock.

In the Cold War times, Europe was neatly divided by the Iron Curtain, also

in a cultural sense, with most of the international cultural traffic being

carefully orchestrated, financed and supervised by the national governments.

Cultural exchange - as it was then called - was clearly an instrument of

foreign policy, a diplomatic signal, a matter of national prestige

packaged for export, especially when aiming across the Iron Curtain. Since

1989 international cultural cooperation grew significantly in Europe but

not much outside it. Most European governments still keep in their

embassies a cultural attaché and bigger and richer countries run entire

networks of cultural centers in foreign cities, signaling that culture on

the international level remains a highly politicized matter, an instrument

to ensure national political prestige and influence and increasingly to

corner part of the market for the products of own cultural industry.

British Council, Goethe Institute, French and Italian cultural centers,

Instituto Cervantes of the Spanish government and other similar networks

abroad have been originally set up to promote own national culture and

language, in a world marked by the Cold War tensions, ideological

competition and troubled decolonization. Today all these agencies seek to

shift their role towards international cultural cooperation, dialogue, and

intercultural exploration and yet, in a foreign city they tend to compete

with each other . Their best staff members understand that they would

benefit from mutual collaboration and would achieve more by combining their

modest resources and much reduced budgets, especially outside Europe, where

they often lack strong domestic partners. But , such cooperation among

national cultural machines, all good intentions notwithstanding, goes

against their core ethos, distinct bureaucratic procedures and

institutionalized hierarchies, as set by their respective ministries at


A retired Western European diplomat, who served in Moscow in the early

1990s, told me recently that he tried to nudge his EU colleagues (there were

only 12 at the time) to set their embassies‚ cultural offices under one

roof, keep their respective institutional distinctions, budgets and

reporting channels but develop a common programming in the same building,

with a combined library. It was not possible to reach such an agreement and

the opportunity to acquire such a building in the center of Moscow for

relatively little money was squandered.

A modest proposal

This federalizing effort would probably not work out today either, even if

President Putin or Mayor Luzhkov would offer a nice, centrally located

building for free. At the other hand, what if the EU would take culture for

its strategic potential and decide to set up Houses of European Cultures in

some key cities outside the EU? Start with Moscow, Istanbul and Cairo as

major metropols in the EU's immediate neighborhood.

Take Istanbul, for instance. Whether the EU top confirms, postpones or

rejects Turkey's candidacy for the EU membership this coming December, the

decision will have major cultural ramifications. With the acceptance of

Turkey's candidacy, a House of European Cultures in Istanbul would have a

task to speed up Turkey's integration in the EU cultural zone - despite an

anachronistic and inflexible state system of cultural institutions and to

empower the autonomous but fragile cultural network that is concentrated in

Istanbul; or in the case of negative decision of the EU top, to reduce the

adversary cultural consequences, to mend fences, to support those

Europe-oriented Turkish intellectuals and artists who will be disappointed

and left in the cold, under a strong home pressure of an anti-European

backlash that will almost certainly follow a negative vote.

Then Cairo, the political and cultural capital of the Arab world. As in

other Arab countries, whatever meager cultural infrastructure exist there,

it lingers between poverty and corruption, repressive censorial regime,

suspicious of dissent, and raising religious militancy, opposed to artistic

innovation and free debate. In Cairo, a House of European Cultures would be

a welcome expansion of the fragile civil society that lacks autonomous

spaces for creativity, reflection and debate, where each independent group

crumbles quickly under the harassment of authorities, caught in a web of

legal conditions impossible to fulfill, hurt by the resentment of the

neighbors and inner jealousy and shear exhaustion.

In Moscow, the House of European Cultures would have to fill the gap left

after the withdrawal of George Soros' Open Society Institute, an independent

foundation that since perestroyka times used to spend up to $120 million a

year in Russia, from which at least 10% went for culture. No foreign (that

is, for practical purposes, American) foundation still active in Moscow has

anything close to this sum in its budget. Innovative, daring, critical

culture in Moscow survives in the Bermuda triangle, constituted by the

rigid and conservative state subsidized institutions, commercial and even

criminal operators who often use cultural activities as an alibi or a cover

up, and well funded reactionary and ultra-nationalist NGO‚s of clear

anti-European orientation.

Cultural operators instead of diplomats

Now some practicalities. Staff those houses not with diplomats borrowed from

the embassies and not with the EU civil servants, but with seasoned cultural

operators of practical international experience, contracted or seconded for

2-3 years. Nominate as the directors those professionals who have made

their reputation by running large interdisciplinary venues (such as

Kampnagel in Hamburg, KIT in Copenhagen or La Villette in Paris), or major

festivals such as London's Lift, Wienerfestwoche, or KunstenfestivaldesArts

in Brussels, let them chose their staff from among the colleagues from other

countries with whom they have worked in the past, as long as they come from

different nations and cultures and competently cover a range of artistic

disciplines. Give them less than diplomat's salaries but a decent activity

budget (from the EU foreign relations budget and not from the tiny EU

cultural program!) and let them develop their own idea and practice of

European cultures, according to the local circumstances, needs, prejudices,

assumptions and creative resources.

Let those staff members rely not on their ministries but on European

cultural networks which have given a tremendous boost to international

cultural cooperation and pioneered many innovative models of multilateral

work. Accept for 2-4 months advanced students of European universities to

work in these houses as interns. Bring in intellectuals and artists,

ensembles, teams and individuals not for the sake of prestige and

representation but in order to explore, debate, learn together and engage in

intercultural projects. Set up schemes that would go further than the

capital cities where the house is located and develop into regional

projects. Follow up with generous visitor's program whereby local artists

and intellectuals would travel for a study visit to several EU countries,

and if invited to a conference in Barcelona, have a chance to give a

workshop in Lisbon or attend a seminar in Lyon.

Nurture a broad notion of culture, with a critical attitude to the cultural

heritage and tradition but a polemic questioning of the contemporary

cultural industry and its flattening and manipulative potential. Rely on

internet for the dissemination of information in order to concentrate on

human contacts and direct communication of cultural operators. Evaluate the

whole scheme in 4 years and strive to improve, correct, amplify where

possible, then ad similar places in several key cities further away from the

EU borders, for instance, in Teheran, Shanghai, Johannesburg, San Paolo,

Bombay, Lagos, Mexico City...

Instead of essentialist debates and nitpicking definitions of European

culture(s), their common aspects and divergent traits (debates inevitably

Eurocentric and insufficiently globalist in the perception of world-wide

cultural shifts, often permeated by reactionary cultural pessimism) , let

the notion of European cultures or rather cultures in Europe be constructed

from the outside as it were, experimentally, through a concentrated

engagement of European cultural resources and talents in a few crucial and

emblematic foreign capitals. In those urban pressure cookers the link

between culture and social development, creativity and intercultural

competence, even arts and religion, could be further tested, making the EU

foreign and security policy take shape through dialogue, understanding,

mutual respect and common learning rather than posturing and cajoling for

the sake of dominance and exploitation.

Ben Bot's Second Chance

At the time I am writing this Jan Figel of Slovakia has been appointed the

EU new Commissioner for Education and Culture. Nether he nor other

candidates mentioned previously had any significant experience with culture

and cultural policy. The ongoing Dutch EU presidency offers, however, to

the minister Bot a chance to reconsider his Berlin stance and influence the

EU agenda by recognizing the value of culture for that "federation in

making " he has been envisaging, and make it federate on well chosen

cultural platforms, both at home (among 25 member states) and beyond its


Dr Dragan Klaic is a theater scholar and essayist. He is a Permanent Fellow

of Felix Meritis in Amsterdam and President of European Forum for Arts and

Heritage (www.efah.org).

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