Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
  Plenum | Plenary Session | Séance plénière  DEUTSCH | ENGLISH | FRANCAIS

The Role of Culture in the European Council

Walter Schwimmer (Secretary General of the European Council)


Ladies and gentlemen, friends,

Europe is unique. Our continent's cultural multiplicity is an indispensable foundation of our political identity. Our diversity is our strength, and that very much includes the strength we draw from one another.

The values to which we at the Council of Europe are committed are the outcome of centuries-long exchange and cross-fertilisation between cultures and between religions in Europe. Cultural co-operation is consequently a central concern of our Organisation.

Belief in the rule of law, in pluralism and in human rights is both the result of such exchange and a prerequisite for the lasting democratic development of our continent.

Experience teaches us that people enjoy peace, prosperity and progress when they know one another, open up to one another and can accept difference. When they don't know one another, they build walls of indifference and non-communication - walls that are then often demolished violently.

It is no coincidence that cultural action is especially important and features prominently in any reconciliation process. Rapprochements are possible in the cultural sphere which are impossible in "official" political relations. The term "culture" is of course to be taken here in its broadest possible sense, and that is how the Council of Europe understands it.

The Franco-German Youth Office, to take one example, has enabled hundreds of thousands of young people to get to know, and appreciate, the "enemy" across the border, learn the other country's language and explore the two countries' common history. And of course Franco-German relations, in which both countries have invested so much, politically and financially, are bearing abundant political and economic fruit.

And this particular example also illustrates that things don't happen on their own - they have to be made to happen. Great political determination, plus a degree of financial and policy input, are absolutely indispensable.

That is precisely what the Council of Europe provides with its cultural co- operation work. The European Cultural Convention offers a flexible framework for multilateral cultural policy and action. That is all-important: the Cultural Convention has allowed co-operation with European non-member countries at a time when, politically, there would have been frequent problems.

After the collapse of the Communist system in central and eastern Europe, ratification of the Cultural Convention was the newly democratising countries' first, important step towards co-operation with the countries of democratic Europe.

Through cultural co-operation the newer and older member states were able to come together on an equal footing and get acquainted. That was an indispensable concomitant - and in some cases a prerequisite - of co-operation in the political and legal fields.

The Cultural Convention interprets cultural co-operation very broadly, as ranging from the arts proper to educational, youth and sports matters. In each case we see our task as twofold: first, laying the legal foundations, and second, drawing up culture policy guidelines and putting them into effect.

Legal foundations are necessary to allow governments to take positive action - for instance in preserving the historic heritage or landscape conservation, or in mutual recognition of academic qualifications.

As regards culture policy guidelines, a number of principles are fundamental:

All of this is put into practice through a range of multilateral programmes. European culture policy has to be tangible, understandable and relevant to people's everyday experience.

Two examples shall illustrate this concept: the Council of Europe Art Exhibitions and the Cultural Routes Programme.

Through the Council of Europe Art Exhibitions, major European museums share their treasures. The exhibitions, each on a specific theme, tour a number of cities, making our common European heritage more widely available. The exhibitions highlight historical and cultural links, and their influence on art and artists. The last such exhibition to come to Vienna to great acclaim was the Biedermeier exhibition, "The Dream of Happiness", in 1996.

Heritage trails (or cultural routes, as the Council of Europe calls them) are another very concrete illustration of giving theoretical principles the excitement and immediacy of learning by experiencing. The routes, all on a specific theme, link up outstanding examples of architectural and natural heritage, showing how cultures have interacted through the ages.

In addition, they promote cross-border co-operation, give renewed impetus to traditional crafts and trades, promote tourism and thereby contribute to economic progress. The best-known of the routes is the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. Others focus on Hanseatic trade and on viticulture. We are extending the programme at the moment and setting up a new framework for it.

I should also briefly mention our cultural co-operation programmes, for example in South East Europe and in the South Caucasus.

We attach particular importance to promoting intercultural dialogue in Europe and beyond. A few years ago everyone was talking about a "clash of civilisations". Personally I don't believe there is any such thing. What we have is a "clash of ignorance", and it is something we need to combat, amongst other things - perhaps especially - through cultural co-operation. Two weeks ago the European Ministers of Culture adopted a declaration on intercultural dialogue and conflict prevention.

They redefined their role as instigators of a culture policy that actively seeks dialogue, identifies potential sources of conflict, and helps defuse them by means of inter-community familiarisation and joint action within what we have termed "safe and shared places for dialogue". "Safe places" could be schools, or cultural facilities, or the media. The idea is a challenging one, but it is not just wishful thinking. It is being put into practice in a range of concrete projects which the Ministers are due to evaluate next year.

However, we also seek intercultural dialogue beyond Europe, and thus are in permanent exchange for example with the League of Arab States and their culture and education organisation, ALECSO. This dialogue takes place both at the highest political and on operational level.

Ladies and gentlemen,

All the members of the European Union are also members of the Council of Europe, and so parties to the European Cultural Convention. As you know, the European Union itself has few "cultural" competences as such. As cultural co-operation is going to take on increased importance, especially in the enlarged European Union, I would invite the Union to accede to the Council of Europe's European Cultural Convention. That would create the legal basis for more intensive EU involvement in the cultural domain, including a targeted financial support policy.

To make the Cultural Convention still more attractive, the 45 Council of Europe countries are currently working on a protocol to it with the aim of giving the Convention more concrete scope in several fields, such as Europe and the world, cultural diversity or new technologies. The protocol will be ready in time for the Cultural Convention's fiftieth anniversary, in December 2004.

European Union accession to the Cultural Convention would be an important contribution to the new European architecture, demonstrating how the two organisations complement and can reinforce each other: the Council of Europe has the broader framework, the European Union the resources for action.

© Walter Schwimmer (Secretary General of the European Council)

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For quotation purposes:
Walter Schwimmer (Secretary General of the European Council): The Role of Culture in the European Council. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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