Dinner for two: A shopping list for a European democracy

I Setting the context

The European House for Culture (EHfC), an initiative of the European Festivals Association, is presenting a new book featuring essays from leading lawmakers from the European Parliament and thinkers from the cultural sector on the future of cultural policy in Europe. These contributors have been asked to share their personal visions for the role culture can play in European policy and decision making.
As the EHfC and many other partner organizations have stated before, Europe’s cultural diversity and the power of its cultural activity are invaluable resources and should form the engine that drives the engagement between European citizens and around the project of the European Union. Only by developing a thoughtful framework that effectively acknowledges culture as a provider of strong mechanisms for the development of civic values can we think about the future of the EU outside economic fatalism and outside a narrative of political failure.
The following articles discuss the role that culture play in citizenship across Europe and envision the mutual responsibility that culture and Europe bear towards one another. They represent the individual visions of nine Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, Greens/European Free Alliance, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. And very important, the vision of the commissioner for culture Mr. Tibor Navracsics himself. They are but a few voices, of course, but they may very well serve a major effort: to reach out to other politicians and state, loud and clear, that Europe needs a fresh outlook on its future, and that future is only possible with culture at the centre of political agendas.
Since 2013 the European House for Culture and its partner A Soul for Europe have been working on a European Resolution on Culture urging all political and civic leaders to endorse culture as a tool to develop active citizenship and community involvement that leads to social inclusion, solidarity, responsibility and justice.
Until the end of this legislative term of the European Parliament the challenge is to have this European Resolution on Culture implemented into an official text.

II Facing the challenge

Writing an introductory text to a book that consists of essays by politically-committed and culturally-aware MEPs is a minor challenge. I would rather be writing an introduction to a compilation of texts, official interventions, interviews and public declarations of all those who daily fail to put culture in their political agenda, or repeatedly fail to be consequent – at decision-making level – with their upholding of culture as an essential part of the European project. But that other book is a nearly impossible task. Why is it so difficult to address people outside either the ‘cultural arena’ or the ‘Brussels Island’ about the pressing challenges for culture and for Europe? The reasons are of course manifold and complex, but for the sake of clarity I will attempt at a simple (even if unavoidably simplistic) answer:
On the political side, the problem seems to be that – if you mention the importance of culture to anyone, they immediately agree with you. It is hard to find a politician nowadays (either in a medium-sized city or in sitting in the EP, from left to right-wing) who hasn’t learned at least the basics about ‘the role of culture’, or who cannot elaborate convincingly about the ‘major importance of the culture and creative industries’, by combining a few clichés about creativity, urban regeneration, cultural tourism or going down any other typical mainstream route. “The vital role of culture for/in the European project” somehow managed to be included everywhere from official texts to political jargon, but failed to be included where it actually belongs: in the demands of European citizens, in a solid cultural
policy with sufficient resources at Member-State level, in the political arena as an area we cannot afford to overlook in times of economic austerity. The problem with mainstreaming the discourse about the importance of culture is that we allowed the use of that major argumentative asset without taking or demanding proper action at national or European level – and now this issue is a bit like that music hit that has played a million times on the radio and on the elevator: you just don’t pay attention anymore, because you know the song.
On the other hand, it is hard to talk to citizens about this. And by citizens I mean friends – be they artists, intellectuals, designers, musicians, restaurant-owners, veterinarians, carpenters, IT engineers or housekeepers. They are difficult to engage in conversations or readings about Europe and or culture, let alone a combination of the two. And it is not that they don’t participate in the arts or that they’re ignorant about the relevance of culture in society. But they – we all – have been stupid enough to take culture – and Europe? – for granted. We have seen cuts in artistic education in almost every European country1, we have witnessed strong retractions of public funding for the arts justified by ‘austerity measures’, we have seen a considerable drop in cultural consumption2, we have kissed our friends and relatives goodbye at the airport because they couldn’t find a job in the ‘creative’ sector, but we somehow knew that culture would survive. Come to think about it, it pervades all our life. It is embedded in our habits, it is the music we listen to, the language we speak in, the sitcom we’re fans of, it is difficult to imagine a world without all this. Furthermore, prices don’t always (or almost never) reflect the actual costs incurred to produce those goods, which adds another layer of invisibility. Also, museums don’t close down, do they? (Well, banks didn’t use to close too, and those too were seen as solid institutions once – too big to fail? That’s in the past). This invisibility of the fragility of the culture sector has a lot to do also with the invisibility of the labour force that sustains it. Yes, culture apparently seems to have a capacity to keep producing, even if the ‘supply chain’ is full of flaws. But at what cost? Martina Michels reminds us that “lousy payment is typical” in these sectors, and detects a pattern of self-exploitation. She goes further to suggest that “[T]oo often and too easily therefore cultural producers are made to a role model of a new working class: enterprising, self-organized and satisfied with few social protections.” This is a central point in the debate and has been subject to an impressive number of studies3, which should remind us: no, this is not about the cultural sector, “it’ is about the working world of tomorrow” (MM) and, therefore, should be a preoccupation of each and every one of us, and a clear political priority at European level. We must admit we are quite far from that widespread acknowledgement.

Of course the challenge is a lot bigger than just ‘making the case’ of culture and cultural policies in the context of European democratic development in the face of citizens and politicians. It is about transforming culture from a weak, subsidiary agenda into a strong public policy. But what exactly is a strong public policy? According to Portuguese geographer João Ferrão4, strong public policies have at least three distinct characteristics: (1) they are integrated into the family of EU policies, which means they benefit from binding legal frameworks for all EU-Member States and significant direct financial support, or at least a favourable funding framework – evidence of these are quite obviously the environmental or agricultural sectors; (2) they mobilize strong economic powers, as is the case with transport or business and technological innovation; and, last but not least, (3) they are under a permanent and intense public scrutiny – such as education or healthcare policies, which are seen to deal with central, inalienable every-day issues that affect citizens directly.
In his words: “The combination of these three factors explains the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ public policies: they differ fundamentally in terms of the incidence of the rule of law, of public support and funding, of the influence of organized interests and in what concerns the pressure of public opinion. This disparity has a clear expression in government structures, for instance. Can anyone envisage a government without a Ministry for Economy, or Environment, or Health?” To which one could add: but yet a national government without a Ministry of Culture goes unnoticed by citizens at large, and seems to raise no special interest or concern in the European institutions.
This leads us straight to the point: if we are indeed convinced that the European project does not exist without the cultural bedrock that is its source of strength and meaning, how can we make sure – at national and European level – that culture is more than a ‘guest’ of other public policies, the big ‘hosts’?
Having said this, it is perhaps noteworthy to clarify that I am at all not implying that culture should not collaborate with other agendas – but I am stressing that it is paramount to recognize that as attractive as the invitation might be, there is a huge difference between being invited and being co-author. So even if there are huge gains for citizenship deriving from the integration of culture into other policies and agendas (be they city marketing or social inclusion), that cannot be the only solution. Addressing this issue is the only way of convert those grandiose assertions about culture being at the heart of the European project into true political commitments with real-life impact.
At this point, it is probably clear for the reader that this probably means discussing European intervention in culture, or the need for a European cultural policy. Solutions will not be served in this book; you will not find quick-fixes for such complex problems – rather contributions for action that go beyond the endorsement of a few dramatically underfinanced and politically overlooked EU programmes.
You will read about Arne Lietz belief “that spending on culture should be compulsory and that investing in culture should an EU responsibility, comparable to investment in the overall European project”; but also Tibor Navracsics urging us to take the results of the ‘Erasmus generation’ further. In the European Resolution of Culture, you will read about the need for direct action towards the EP but also a concerted effort in the local and national contexts to raise awareness to the need for this resolution. Culture remains in the exclusive rule of the National States, thus, a resolution will only be implemented if in each country, if at each level of policy making its values and action points are supported and ultimately felt as essential as active policies in employment, health and social welfare. The goal of this dialogue is to establish a European model for a cultural policy that streamlines and acts as a guiding principle across all levels of governance: a model for positive civic values, social justice, solidarity; citizenship through culture, access to culture, cultural participation and artistic creation.
The European House for Culture is focused on a clear agenda, and on fostering a model for a mutually beneficial relationship between Europe and culture. The starting point is, thus, constructive. It is about opening up the debate and facilitating action.
Myself, I will not contribute to the discussion around how such an intervention or policy could put the subsidiarity principle at risk – I will not let my voice be trapped in that never-ending and inconsequent rhetoric loop that ignores that the EU is present in every other policy field and in so many invisible details of our daily life. The ‘cultural exception’ should not be used to sustain unfruitful taboos. After all, staying outside the European radar hasn’t helped us much, has it?

III Do ask, do tell. A “shopping list” for an European Resolution on Culture

The third and last block of this brief introduction is a short list of questions I believe we need to address – a ‘shopping list’ to make the European Resolution on Culture an effectively tangible goal. These are some interrogations to put in your shopping basket. Go ahead and choose the ones you are passionate to fight for.
– Can we agree on the fundamental importance of a Ministry of Culture in every EU Member-State Government?
– Can we work towards an agreement as to the minimum budgetary allocation for Culture in each Member State? If so, how exactly should we go about setting the limits or percentages? What have we learnt with the recent European history regarding maximum public debt percentages and how can we guarantee there will be equal treatment between all Member-States?
– Based on which criteria can the EU and the Member States secure an adequate public funding for culture in times against the backdrop of economic crisis and social emergency?
– What can be done at political level – both national and European – to transform culture into a strong public policy?
– Can we make the meetings between Ministers of Culture of the EU more relevant and transparent to European citizens? Can we agree that citizens need to be able to know – and, put plainly, understand – what kind of actions do their representatives commit to, in public, towards them?
– How can we address the issue of the precarious labour force that sustains the cultural and creative sectors? How can we address issues of inequality among artists working in or across Europe in terms of access to health care, social security, etc? At EU programme level, how can we rightly balance the funding of ‘activity-related’ expenses (communication, dissemination of results…) and the fair payment of intellectual work?
– How can we go even further in terms of mobility opportunities for artists, cultural operators and arts managers? How can we make sure mobility funding does not replace structural funding that is dramatically insufficient in so many European countries?
– What are the implications of leaving the worn-out ‘impacts agenda’ or the ‘economic driver agenda’ behind? Or, better said, how can we devise models that encompass proud public funding for the arts, with minimum political interference on artistic content?
One final remark before I share the last item on my shopping list with you. I will not say we are facing unprecedented challenges – historians tell us that notion is historically wrong and that every generation feels the need to claim the urgency of change in their specific historical moment. But a political discussion around the role of culture in the European project cannot afford to ignore the backdrop against which it is set. Policies do not exist in a political vacuum. As Marietje Schaake sharply states, “just because politics should not interfere, does not mean nothing should be done.” So the need to take on wider contemporary political, economic, social and environmental challenges when answering the above questions is self-evident.
Having said that, I would urge you to think of a European rationale for cultural action that is not dependent on short-term cultural policy trends or agendas, but rather on a political, almost existential, need to engage with each other and with the rest of the world.

Vânia Rodrigues
Member of the European House for Culture
Arts Manager & Consultant, Portugal

1 Cf. http://www.culturalpolicies.net/web/index.php
2 “However, cost, as measured by “too expensive” responses, is an obstacle for many Europeans, particularly in eastern European countries (Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary) and in some of the countries worst affected by the economic crisis (Greece, Portugal and Spain).»)
3 Menger, Hardt, Negri, and so many others are writing about this.
4 Ferrão, João in “Cultural Policies for Development”, ed. ARTEMREDE, coord. By Vânia Rodrigues, Marta Martins and Pedro Costa.
5 This was, for instance, the case in Portugal from June 2011 until November 2015, during the period of the bailout and the EU/IMF intervention programme.

 

 

cultural policies