Politics of European culture

1996 I wrote my master thesis on “European cultural policy after Maastricht” (in German).  I asked why and for what the European Union could get involved in cultural policies. The first answer I found was the functional necessity to regulate the market of cultural goods and services, a reason that remains as pertinent as ever. While in the 1990s the debate was about the single market, the TV without borders directive and the GATT (later: WTO) negotiations, we discuss today about cross-border copyright issues and systems of producers`rights protection, including those with social welfare objectives for artists and writers, and – of course – TTIP. The second aspect, quite 1990s, was the idea to foster more European awareness, exchange and ultimately some form of European identity through “action” (programmaticly named, such as Youth for Europe). These youth and education programmes (now under a single Erasmus label), the Europeanisation of research as well as of cultural activities, European festivals, art fairs and of the European cities of culture blossomed. While those developments have increased European mobility and exchange – not least facilitated by a liberalised and open transport and telecommunication market – it remains to be seen now how much the last 20 years have increased a common European awareness in times of crisis (was bleibt?).  I also looked at the external aspects of European cultural action and the interaction with external action of the European Union; these days eventually getting more attention – although possibly more as a symptom of the multiple crises of the EU´s foreign policy than of a genuine resolve to engage in culture and cultural dialogue.

Today, the democratic European cultural fabric as it could emerge during the second half and late 20th century is becoming ever more fragile. In some places it has already been torn and in other it is hardly keeping together, so thread-bare it has become. The carrefour and expression of European culture is the European city. European town and cities, however, have become weaker in the last decades while becoming ever more diverse and fragmented. Municipalities and cities, associations and initiatives, theatres and museums, independent cultural agents are living through difficult and contradictory developments brought by a dangerous mix: political ignorance and neglect, austerity and de-institutionalisation,  hyper commercialisation of the public space, festivalisation of cultural work, precarisation of many and excessive incomes for few artists and producers, more flexible yet less local distribution channels made possible by digitalisation, the emergence of new information monopolies, less opportunities for cultural education paired with more cultural diversity brought by immigration, continuous destruction of cultural heritage, including by violence and war – to list just some of these developments. Yet, it is is in locally and urban based culture that citizenship can develop and flourish. If Europe is to succeed, we need to look back at the initial question of why and for what the European Union should or should not get involved in cultural policies.