What does the European Parliament say about the EU’s international cultural relations?

Greta Galeazzi explains how, in a moment of existential crisis for the EU, culture and values need to be at the heart of the debates in Europe.

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      In a moment of existential crisis for the European Union, culture might seem irrelevant. Yet, for a meaningful refounding of the European project, culture and values need to be at the heart of the debates in Europe.

      Culture and values are at the core of a draft report by the European Parliament, expressing the institution’s views on the EU’s strategy for international cultural relations, presented in a communication by the High Representative Federica Mogherini in June 2016. Other institutions have already discussed this communication. The Council of the EU did so in November 2016. The Foreign Affairs Council also dealt with this issue during a meeting this year, and at a senior officials informal meeting on culture organised by the Maltese presidency.

      Some of the proposals put forth by the report of the European Parliament regarding culture build on existing views. Some reiterate old calls for action, but in many cases, the report has the potential to bring novelty to cultural policies in Europe.

      Abiding by predominant views on culture in EU external action


      The report of the European Parliament embraces the vision of cultural relations proposed in the communication, where culture matters to establish relationships and foster cooperation with other countries. The report also supports a more instrumental vision of culture that serves European interests, as put forward by the communication and by the EU Global Strategy.

      Culture is proposed as the fourth pillar of sustainable development, echoing statements by UNESCO and other actors in culture and development. This shows that, despite the lack of an explicit Sustainable Development Goal on culture, the policy documents are increasingly recognising the relation between culture and development, thus creating space for new initiatives in this realm.

      Funding for international cultural relations


      Given the nature of the communication, which offers an overview of existing initiatives, implementation is already ongoing. However, the European Parliament puts forward additional ambitious suggestions, which include propositions related to action plans, funding, and programmes – quite a novelty.

      First of all, the European Commission and the High Representative are to present annual and multiannual action plans, to provide priorities and to serve as tools for monitoring, evaluation and review. This entails a risk of bureaucratisation but also offers opportunities, especially if clear resources are devoted to international cultural relations.

      The European Parliament’s report also tackles the issue of funding. They present the idea of providing specific funding for international cultural relations in the financial programmes in the next multiannual financial framework (MFF). In light of the mid-term review (MTR), the EP calls also for including international cultural relations in existing budgets and programmes. It is a bold suggestion.The European Parliament parts from for the predominant view that does not envisage additional resources for the implementation of the communication – as argued by the European Commission and the European external action service (EEAS).

      This approach remains, however, ambiguous since it mentions existing instruments. The amendments offer the opportunity for clarifications. In fact, it could constitute a prolongation of the status quo, where funding for culture is provided by a multitude of different instruments and programmes, each having specific goals. ECDPM research identified more than fifteen financial instruments and programmes that offer opportunities to fund cultural activities in the European neighbourhood in the EU budget for the year 2014-2020.

      The system appears fragmented. Yet. it has been quite effective in the case of the European neighbourhood, allowing EU delegations to exploit their complementarities of instruments. But the absence of a well-defined “pot of money” is creating uncertainties among some staff in EU delegations. Therefore, the proposal by the EP might elicit positive responses from actors in the field if it can guarantee dedicated funding.

      When it comes to EU delegations and the EEAS, the European Parliament is very clear in its request to allocate adequate financial and human resources for international cultural relations. The European Parliament’s report supports the growing idea that EU staff needs proper training to acquire cultural competencies. In addition, the European Parliament suggests working with higher education bodies to promote research and training.

      Promoting cultural relations and diversity: Working with member states


      The complex relations between the EU and its member states in the field of culture emerge clearly in the European Parliament’s report. It states that the European Union and its member states should work together, through the European Union National Institutes for Culture and other platforms. One of the key tasks for EU delegations’ “culture focal points” should be to liaise with actors based on the field, including member states’ national cultural institutes.

      Interviews and research by ECDPM show that some EU delegations in the European neighbourhood consider the collaboration with member states essential. Indeed, the cultural institutes possess expertise, professionalism, and networks built through their long-standing activities and presence in the sector. Joint initiatives are starting to arise, often with great success in terms of audience and impact.

      Culture remains, however, a supplementary competence. Therefore, the EU can support member states’ cultural policy in various areas, encouraging cooperation at home and abroad, while respecting national and regional diversity. The European Parliament also encourages the respect of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. For this reason, propositions that tend to give leadership to the EU institutions – such as funds and programmes – are frowned upon by some member states and some parliamentary groups.

      Boosting the EU’s visibility and image as an imperative


      The European Parliament takes a clear stand regarding visibility and image. The communication and the preparatory action for culture in EU external relations already identified the potential for fostering the EU’s image and its visibility. However, the European Parliament calls for “a paradigm shift in media coverage” by European and local media. It proposes ambitious measures, such as the launch of an EU cultural portal, the opening of a European Houses of Culture and several festivals. One more idea is to set up a network of European cultural ambassadors.

      This field is promising but requires investments, including funding knowledge. The EU has invested in understanding the perception of its image in some countries, to develop a more targeted media engagement and boost public diplomacy. Interviews for a research indicated that some EU delegations in the European neighbourhood are quite advanced in multilingual communications. They are able to use channels adapted to the audiences, also thanks to strategic communications plans developed with by EEAS StratCom. Understanding the media environment and the perception of local audiences towards the EU can empower the work of the press and of the information officers.

      In addition, the importance of youth is increasing. The Europeans acknowledge that culture and social media can help reach them. EU delegations are targeting the youth through social media, specific meetings and Erasmus alumni networks.

      Education is another means to engage with youth. The European Parliament proposes to boost residency and exchange programs for young creatives, as recommended by the preparatory action for culture in EU external relations.

      What comes next for the EU communication on international cultural relations?


      The European Parliament’s group will be negotiating amendments to the report in light of the final vote planned for May 2017. The next phase of the EU communication is the endorsement by the Council of the EU. Then, the next step will be sharpening its implementation, following some suggestions of the European Parliament.

      Some of the proposals by the European parliament are in line with existing thoughts and practices and might gain support fairly easily. Whether the more ambitious ones will meet the Council’s approval too, is still in question.


      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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