“Perfect timing, great audience, clear messaging. You’re doing exactly the right thing!” This is how a participant qualified the policy event “Act for Europe through Culture”, organised by the European Cultural Foundation and Culture Action Europe, in cooperation with the European Heritage Alliance 3.3 and BOZAR.
An impressive number of members from across the political spectrum of the European Parliament, including the Chair of the Culture Committee, Ms Sabine Verheyen, and over hundred representatives of arts, cultural and heritage organisations and networks from across Europe gathered at BOZAR in Brussels, to debate the place of arts, culture and cultural heritage in remit of the future European Commission on September 23rd.
The stakes are high. In July, Ursula Van der Leyen, European President elect released her political guidelines, and on 10 September she announced her team of Commissioners. In both cases, there is very little reference to culture. Very little is said about culture to make Europe a better and more resilient place. In the face of polarization and fragmentation, we need culture to rebuild our communities. Culture is now more essential than ever, also for the European Union. Culture needs to be part and parcel of Ursula van der Leyen’s vision and agenda. It is strategic for the EU and its people. Let’s not leave this to the people who want to misuse culture and identity to destroy the “European way of life”.
The open and lively debate was the first get-to-know and get-together with the newly elected MEPs. What is their take on culture? How can the cultural sector and the European Parliament work together to ensure that culture and cultural heritage are at the heart of next European Commission’s agenda? The burning questions addressed by all MEPs and organisations present were: "Where is culture in Ursula von der Leyen’s vision and priorities? And how can culture regain its own Commissioner, rather than be nestled with innovation, research, education, youth and sports in a huge portfolio to be led by Commissioner designate for Innovation and Youth, Mariya Gabriel?
MEP Sabine Verheyen, Chair of the Culture Committee of the EP congratulated Culture Action Europe for its public campaign Bring back culture, Ms. President to support the call for changing Ms Gabriel’s title to “Innovation, Youth and Culture”. Ms Verheyen’s ambitions are high: introducing culture as a cross-cutting issue on the EU’s agenda, and bringing all Commissioners together. “If we are powerful, we can get seven Commissioners working on culture and coordinating a European strategy. Let’s do it!”
Dharmendra Kanani, Director of Insights at Friends of Europe, and moderator of the debate reminded us of Jacques Delors’ conviction that “Europe needs to turn into a feeling rather than an idea”. And for this to happen, culture needs to move to the centre of the political project. Arts and culture are the glue that holds us together”.
Tere Badia, Secretary General, Culture Action Europe: “We need to put culture at the centre of the construction of a common European project because culture is fundamental to think about our common past, to act on our common present, and to imagine our common future. We want this mandate to work for a European culture that is free, fair and democratic.”
Andre Wilkens, Director, European Cultural Foundation: “The mission of the ECF is the same today as when it was created in 1954 by the same European leaders who pioneered the European Economic Coal and Steel Community - to create a European sentiment. How to do this? By investing in culture, education, and research, as our founding fathers did. Today, we need to invest in creating experiences between people, people to people, analogue and digital. We need to take on the European journey those who are the furthest away from the project Europe.”
Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović, Secretary General, Europa Nostra, coordinator of European Heritage Alliance: “We have the case for a united front for culture! You cannot speak of climate change, without bringing the cultural dimension in. Ursula von der Leyen should take culture in her hands because it is a cross-cutting priority. It is high time to have a President who recognizes the fundamental value of culture for Europe”.
Consequently Dharmendra Kanani asked the present MEP’s: “What do you feel should the role of culture be? What will you stand for in the upcoming five years?”
Niklas Nienass (Greens) kicked off: “Connecting culture and youth is a very strong move. For my generation, a united Europe is just a normal thing. You can see how the Erasmus programme brings us to be more European. Culture is the core thing that humans need.” Domènec Ruiz Devesa (Socialists and Democrats) took over: “National identities do not need more reinforcing, but we need reinforcing of our European identity. If we believe ‘No culture, no future’, then we have to recognize diversity but also our commonalities, and look for them in the common roots that we are maybe unaware of. I believe only with an open minded and positive way we can reinforce political citizenship with cultural citizenship.” And Hannes Heide (Socialists and Democrats): “Culture is the way to develop our democracy in Europe. For me it is an absolute no-go, that culture does not have its own Commissioner.” Anna Donáth (Renew Europe) continued: “It does not matter what is the topic, there is always a cultural angle and if it’s not mentioned I will raise it in the EP. Because culture is like air. They cannot take it away from us. So, if the Commission does not take culture seriously, we need to shape our own portfolio”. Sabine Verheyen (European People’s Party) added: “It is also a big chance to have Commissioner Mariya Gabriel oversee this big portfolio if we can shape the cultural dimension in it.” The last words were for Dace Melbarde (European Conservatives & Reformists), and Vice-Chair of the Culture Committee: "It is important for each MEP to be an ambassador for culture in two ways, top-down and bottom-up. Culture should be on the agenda not only of policy makers but of economists, environmentalists, security officials. We need a culture mainstreaming as it happened with the United Nations strategic development goals.”
A commitment to culture is key for the next Commission leadership. This needs to be translated in a concrete responsibility at the highest political level: Ms Ursula van der Leyen herself. Culture is “Chefsache”. Politicians, cultural practitioners, and citizens need to seize the opportunity and unite for a vision of Europe that has culture at its core. Because ambitious times require ambitions solutions. The organizers thus call for:
· European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to take the responsibility for culture herself and ensure it is fully embedded in her strategy and agenda.
· The European President to be supported by a strong Vice –President and Commissioner for Culture
· The European Parliament to stand up and call for a designated Commissioner for Culture. Europe deserves a Commissioner for Culture, as it has a Commissioner for Agriculture. Culture is not only a sector worth investing but a strategic asset for Europe. Culture must be a pillar in the European project as it should be in the Agenda for Sustainable Europe 2030.
· Politicians, cultural practitioners, and citizens to seize the opportunity and unite for a vision of Europe that has culture at its core. Because ambitious times require ambitions solutions.
· All readers to mobilise their networks to have at least 10.000 people to sign the Culture Action Europe petition.