Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
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Culture and European enlargement

Mercedes Echerer (Member of the European Parliament)


For a long time, the Euro was a vision. Today it is already a part of everyday life, even if some of us (including myself) still convert the price of a commodity into our old currency. The Euro coins and bank notes travel within the EU and around the world, complete collections of coins from the different member countries became collectors' items. Recently, my daughter was delighted about the fact that she as an Austrian could buy a book in Germany with a Euro minted in Spain. The Euro is more than just a common means of payment. The Euro has a double nature: it unites economy and trade with cultural differences. The Euro is a symbol for unity in diversity. The Mints of the nation-states have survived, but the monetary value is the same. Beyond all the positive and negative side effects, the Euro is a success, and I pay my highest respect to the visionaries who brought it about.

The next great vision of Europe will become reality in a few months' time. The reunited Europe! The process to strengthen peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law will reach a new climax in May 2004. The EU-15 will become the EU-25. The road there has been long and arduous, accompanied by scepticism, distrust, false hopes, justified and artificially construed fears, information deficit, misinterpretations, radical views, evasions from essentials - a wide open vista for populists. Moreover, the confusion of domestic problems with potential problems linked to the enlargement has negative effects upon this peace and integration process and contributes to the sceptical attitude of wide segments of the population. Farsightedness and solidarity at every level of the political and civil societies would have been more helpful.

What is long decided politically and will become a fact in May next year, namely, must in the end be borne by the population of Europe. Summits and statements - how ever positive - are not sufficient, not for the people who do not get answers or satisfactory answers to their questions. Especially not for those who are not yet interested in the "new" ones. But not for the civil society which is positively inclined and curious, either.

New inhabitants are now moving into the "European Home". Old neighbours have become new ones. How well do the old and new inhabitants know each other? History courses, summer holidays, cultural trips, etc., are not yet enough in order to learn about life-styles and societal projects.

The preparatory period before the enlargement was also full of challenges for the EU-15. The economy has already discovered the new markets in its way. The colleagues of exemplary businesses have not only learned the languages of their host countries, they have also brought their know-how into the education in these countries. In most cases, however, communication commenced in English, French, and - historically conditioned - also in German. It is self-evident that our children, like us, learn internationally useful languages. We have known about the planned reunification of Europe for more than 10 years. But how common is it for Slavic languages to be taught in normal state schools today?

We all know that language can be the bridge to the "Other". Wherever there is no compelling necessity, however, demand and supply are limited. The consequence: who knows, even in excerpts, about current artistic creativity in the European East? The messages from the new member countries and their reception must not be reduced to folklore. Connective cultural work is what is missing. There are countless individual initiatives, both private and political in nature, but both in Brussels and in the member countries there is a lack of courage with regard to new framework conditions and visionary policy in the cultural field in general.

In the European context this means: there was support for the candidate countries in the realm of culture within the framework of progressive strategies. Participation in the sponsored cultural programmes was welcomed, as long as the countries remained junior partners. That's it! Culture is greeted wherever it 'doesn't hurt'. Criticism in the form of culture is tolerated to a certain extent, as proof of a liberal attitude. Culture and cultural exchange are valued as positive side effects of economic success, but they are hardly recognized as belonging to an independent realm of politics, as something more than pure sponsoring policy. Culture costs money. But even there, where empirical study confirms how much more than the invested money comes back through detour profitability, there is hesitation and cost-cutting. True, the means are limited, everywhere. But, as they say, it is not only about the money - it is also about structural measures.

The 10 new countries in the EU were and are about to implement the acquis communitaire completely, and there are hardly any resources left over for cultural policy. Time and again, and unfortunately, increasingly, I hear the judgment: The accession to the EU is important to us, but we will not let our culture be "harmonized away". What sounds like a defence of a "culture of national pride" is, rather, testimony of a false consideration of European and international politics. International contracts and accords have just as drastic consequences for domestic cultural politics as European legislation does.

Culturally creative people in the old as well as the new countries awoke from their state of "sleeping beauty" as the "GATS-ghost" lurked through almost all of the European gazettes. On this issue, most people were decided: We, i.e. the EU member countries, must safeguard our cultural diversity. Exactly which consequences this should have, or what is to be understood by "safe-guarding cultural diversity" is not always clear. Within the framework of the preliminary GATS-negotiations, there was also the theme of liberalization of the field of culture and media. According to GATS rules, this means, for example, that shares and ratings in television are discriminatory and should be banished. Or: subsidies from the public realm are counter-competitive and should be banished or they should be available to all.

However, it also means: so-called developing or threshold countries should expect the dismantling of barriers, such as visa requirements for cultural workers.

Attempts to solve these problems within GATS are in my opinion misguided. The European cultural market is an exemplary open market. Whoever wishes to cooperate with the EU may do so, as long as he or she can find a partner. Existing barriers such as the visa requirement could in my opinion be solved bilaterally.

It should primarily be about cultural cooperation and cultural exchange. The WTO as well as GATS, however, only know the rules of the free market. When it comes to basic needs, however, and here I include culture and participation in culture, the fruitful dialogue by means of the free market cannot lead to the desired success, but rather into a cultural one-way street, or in the worst case scenario, into cultural imperialism. We therefore need an international instrument, which recognizes the double nature of cultural production, of efficient cultural exchange, and of protection of cultural diversity. Not a protectionist approach, but an offensive is the suggestion from Quebec, which has worked on this theme intensely during the last two years. However, I wish not to anticipate my colleague, Christa Prets. She will tell you about this project in detail.

It is bad enough, that the EU-15 are defending their subsidiarity principle with tooth and claw in cultural politics, but consciously "abandon" culture on the international level. The debates in the negotiations toward the EU Constitution only brought the necessary success for cultural work on the very last day. As previously, however, there is a misunderstanding in the old as well as the new member countries, to the effect that cultural politics is a topic for nation-states, and that Europe should not intervene. Cultural sponsoring programmes are desired (however not by all), and that is that. More intervention from Brussels is supposedly not to be expected. Incisive decisions are actually not coming from the General Directorship for Culture and Audiovisual in the European Commission. The avenues of distribution of art are mostly industrialized and subject to strict competition rules and common market law. Europe provides the legal framework, but the contents are decided by the member states. The most ambitious art sponsorship politics is manipulated by competition- and consumer-oriented decisions. These laws, furthermore, play a role in the independent distribution channels as well as in the artistic productions themselves, in their contents and in their quality. Cultural aspects are accounted for, but only after competition, common market, and the consumer have all had their say. Against this, a European cultural politics with a strong helmsperson could ensure not only that cultural aspects are actually taken into account, he or she could also ensure that the EU acts as a catalyst on a global level, that it becomes a kind of motor, in the way it has in the fields of environmental politics. The old as well as the new member countries are resisting this idea.

The concept, "European cultural politics", is often confused with the Brussels "desire" to harmonize everything. Nobody wants a "harmonization" of national and regional cultural politics! On the one hand, one must never be so naive as to close one's eyes to the European and international realities, whether one is a politician or an artist: intellectual property rights, royalty rights, inheritance rights, participation rights, book price subsidies, unlimited participation in cultural production, and more, are being decided in Brussels (and elsewhere). And the responsible Commissioner, armed with a negotiation mandate from the member countries, enters the international negotiations stage. Yet only the economic forces have decisively formed the framework and even public opinion up to that stage. The artists, the independent art producers or art mediators, hardly participate at all. To be involved in these processes would be a liability for the artist and would presuppose his or her active interest.

On the other hand, in all its diversity, Europe has some common values - after all, they are the foundation of the Union. The cultural potential, however, is hardly activated at all. It either stays within national borders or it enters, with a few exceptions, the international market as a uniform mainstream commodity 'Made in XY'. No thank you! No more Europudding!

What then, would European cultural politics be? Since the concept of "culture" contains quite a lot, I will limit myself to art in the following. Art and politics are diametrically opposed. While politics attempts to erect universally valid rules, to create order in a community, art is dedicated to subjective truth, to individual life projects. The interdependency and the field of tension could not be any greater.

"Art and research are free", that is also what it says in Article 13 of the Basic Rights Charter which will be integrated into the European Constitution. The liberalism of the EU and its wish for plurality can be measured by how much free space will actually be provided for artists by the legislative estate.

Art does not seek justification or reasons and does not ask for its own usefulness. Art is born from the need to face and deal with the world individually. Art politics therefore has the task to create a liberal atmosphere, the only atmosphere in which art can develop, and, on the other hand, it has to make art accessible to the populace. Art which is not made visible misses one of its most important targets.

Problem-oriented participation in socially relevant developments is a legitimate and necessary demand on art, as well as the development of entirely novel life projects. Financial and structural sponsorship of critical art, critical dialogue and processes should be an important part of European cultural politics. The knowledge gained from art is an aid in the real fields of action.

The role of art as a mediator must be taken seriously! Cultural authenticity appears mostly due to the actions of individuals, who, under the influence of their environments, in turn influence and form an era. Their works of art, however, are not only messengers of the cultural identity of a country or, better, of a region, but also frequently of the intersections between different cultures, and thus they have a mediating function between the different worlds, beyond ethnic, historical and political oppositions.

A pledge to the multiethnic society, a sponsorship for an emphasis on intercultural encounters, and - last but not least - the learning of languages, an aesthetic perspective, as well as the sponsoring of media competency already in pre-school education: These tasks must be faced by the European member countries. The problems are known and comparable, the solutions are known and comparable, too!

The consolidation of the peace process, the enlargement of the European Union, can take place without active participation by the people, and thus an active cultural politics is necessary.

To invest time and energy into a visionary European cultural politics along with structural framework conditions and a well-measured sponsorship of the arts is to invest in our society. A society which is not limited to the continent of Europe.

© Mercedes Echerer (Member of the European Parliament)

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For quotation purposes:
Mercedes Echerer (Member of the European Parliament): Culture and European enlargement. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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