Identities and cultures: a European democratic renaissance beyond EU reforms

by Damien Helly, Head of European External Action & Cultural Affairs Advisor Visiting Professor, College of Europe, Bruges
(published on 21 March 2017)

 

Acknowledging Europe’s cultural attractiveness while the EU integration project faces its most serious existential crisis may look like a paradox. Nationalist and Europhobic movements in Europe reject the whole project of EU integration. Brexiteers as well as the new US President, by fuelling cultural clashes with prejudices, discard the very purpose of the EU. Polls show that European citizens are less satisfied with EU institutions than in the past and that entire societies are considering the option of leaving the EU. At the same time, other surveys show that 60% of EU citizens consider the EU project offers future perspectives for Europe’s youth. The challenge is not anymore about simply reforming the Union’s institutional set-up. Democratic and identification deficits are much more deeply rooted in European societies.

Culture in EU policies usually creates much confusion among the public because almost everybody speaks of the EU and Europe as identical twins. The EU and Europe are not twins (with the same genotype, identical and from the same ovum), not even fraternal twins (developed from two fertilised ova). They are fake twins, wrongly perceived as identical while being genetically different. The key question is not really whether there is a European culture to be promoted by the EU: European societies and people and sometimes states are the ones that can claim to be in possession of their cultures and heritage. As for an ‘EU culture’, it is extremely limited and narrow: it is mostly a political, legal and administrative culture, interplaying with European cultures. The challenge that European policy-makers face regarding culture is thus not really about the definition of a supposedly stable common European culture (using the singular).

Rather, it is about finding the most optimal ways to manage, in contemporary exchange flows, the variety of constantly moving European cultures and cultural systems (in the plural) interacting amongst themselves and with the rest of the world with which they often share a common history and heritage (Arabic culture, Ottoman, Russian, African, American, Asian to name but a few general cultural affiliations)..

It also makes it necessary to reflect on the added value of the EU (being a political and institutional entity) as a potential enabler of these transnational cultural flows. According to the new strategy for international cultural relations, the EU is the facilitator of synergies between European creative assets and the world.

Identities and cultures: a European democratic renaissance beyond EU reforms

The future of Europe in the world is not the future of the EU only. The existential crisis of the EU as an institutional and administrative project demonstrates a double need. On the one hand, modernising EU institutions and policies is essential in order to respond to general citizens’ frustrations. The new communication on international cultural relations encourages several policy changes in EU external action. Such reforms will push EU institutions to manage more credible and effective international cultural relations. There is a strong, but largely untapped potential in the EU for a reinforced use of new tech-driven soft power via cultural relations, cultural diplomacy and other forms of credible, trust-building culture-based exchanges and co-creation.
On the other hand, European societies and people need a cultural and democratic European ‘renaissance’ that goes far beyond a reformist discourse propagating the mere external action. Such a movement, to be effective and more compelling than the simplistic nationalist propaganda that is mushrooming all across Europe these days, will have to emerge bottom-up in a culturally sensitive dialogue (or at times through peaceful contestation) between citizens and organized civil society on one side and the EU institutions and states on the other. The way citizens are consulted and debate on the future of Europe and of the EU has to change. Locally organised citizens debates, informed by experts and encouraged by EU, national and local authorities are the only way to open new spaces for democratic and creative deliberation on what ‘being European’ actually means to people. Developing a network of European cultural ambassadors could also help give a ‘modernisation’ of existing EU institutions, policies and external action. Such a movement, to be effective and more compelling than the simplistic nationalist propaganda that is mushrooming all across Europe these days, will have to emerge bottom-up in a culturally sensitive dialogue (or at times through peaceful contestation) between citizens and organized civil society on one side and the EU institutions and states on the other. I am currently working with Pierre Calame on his idea of a foundational process and we welcome partnerships. Developing a network of European cultural ambassadors could also help give a more attractive and engaging face to Europe and the EU: a pilot project I also plan to develop soon.

A longer version of this text was published as a College of Europe’s Policy Brief at https://www.coleurope.eu/system/files_force/research-paper/helly_cepob_2-17_final.pdf?download=1


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