Once almost absent from the chambers of the European Parliament, the issue of culture is gaining ground. A conversation with Gitte Zschoch, director of the EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture) network, for an overview of the European Union's cultural policy.
What does “European cultural policy” mean? How does it translate into action?
Discussing a customs union, a united economy and a common currency is not enough to unite European citizens, hence the European Union’s desire to develop a shared cultural policy. This policy is reflected for example through the adoption of a new agenda for culture by the European Commission. This new agenda includes, among other things, funding to encourage the mobility of artists, the training of professionals in the cultural sector and cultural cooperation between EU Member States and the rest of the world. The European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 is another example of action taking place as part of this shared cultural policy. It encourages more audiences to discover and take ownership of European cultural heritage, reinforcing this sense of belonging to a shared European space.
What are the main objectives of this policy, which is gradually taking shape?
We are in a pivotal period during which cooperation and co-creation are becoming increasingly important. The goal today is no longer simply to promote Europe abroad but rather to enter into a real partnership with the peoples of the world. We are moving from a straightforward promotion of European values and culture to a dialogue with these non-European citizens, with a goal of “creating together”. We are moving away from top-down logic, towards a more collaborative approach. We are prioritising the education of local cultural players and artistic and cultural education in general.
Is it more difficult to implement a shared cultural policy than a European agricultural or environmental policy?
In the 2007 European Treaties, including the Treaty of Lisbon, culture remained the responsibility of each Member State. Moreover a number of states and citizens also show a desire to protect their “cultural exception”: they are convinced that a shared policy could endanger them.
Structural differences don’t help either: the international aspects of European culture are managed, depending on the country, either by institutes or directly by the Ministry of Culture or of Foreign Affairs. However, the initial lack of a shared policy has, in my view, paved the way for these institutes which have established themselves across the world and are now some of the most important players in the construction of this shared European policy.
Does the development of a European cultural policy have an impact on our diplomatic relations with countries outside the European Union?
European cultural policy has consequences outside the EU, if only because it is also reflected in the development of a shared strategy for international cultural relations. In this case, culture and foreign affairs are intertwined: for example, European cultural heritage professionals will be able to train, communicate and exchange knowledge with professionals in the same sector from countries where heritage is less regulated and protected, or is even endangered.
How does the EUNIC network that you manage participate in the construction of this policy?
EUNIC was created in 2006 to bring together all the bodies of the Member States of the European Union which are working in the cultural field outside their respective borders. Our 36 members include the Institut Français, the Lithuanian Cultural Institute, the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Estonian Institute, the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, the Dante Alighieri Circle and the Goethe-Institut – as well as various ministries – the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in France and Italy and the Ministries of Culture in Cyprus and Malta, for example. We want to “foster mutual trust and understanding through culture” – this is our motto. We believe in the unique opportunities that culture can create.
The Franco-German Cultural Fund, created in 2003, is one of the tools which has been established. Is this a model for others to come?
The Franco-German Cultural Fund supports cultural initiatives undertaken by France and Germany outside the European Union. This is an excellent example of what the EUNIC network would like to implement in the European Union and the rest of the world. Inspired by this type of international cultural cooperation, we have created the Cluster Fund, which funds the projects of our members, who are organised in “clusters” — groupings of institutions located in the same physical area. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a cluster of four of our members — the Goethe-Institut, the French Institute of Kinshasa, the Wallonia-Brussels Centre, and Camões IP (Portugal) — has benefited from the support of the Cluster Fund and from a partnership with the local European delegation to create several projects, including a photography master class for students of the Kinshasa Fine Arts Academy: the first in the country!
What types of projects do you most often support?
The EUNIC network first and foremost supports new forms of international cultural cooperation, based on co-creation, intercultural dialogue and interactions between individuals. Projects must go beyond mere presentation — or representation — to truly be part of a process of exchange and citizen participation. We also grant great importance to the training of professionals in the sector and the transmission of knowledge. All these goals are to be found in the agreement we have signed with the European Commission and the European External Action Service and reflect the guidelines of European cultural policy.
And are there any particular topics or sectors from which you would like to receive more proposals?
We would like to receive more projects linked, on the one hand, to digitisation and the influence of digital technologies on our cultural activities; and, on the other hand, to questions of political identity: gender equality, sexual and minority identities, post-colonial discourse, to name just a few. Our members — the cultural institutes in particular — have succeeded in establishing a trusting relationship with associations working on these issues at the local level, as close as possible to the citizens concerned. Allowing grass-roots initiatives and themes to reach the bodies of the Union and influence recommendations at the European level is the goal of European cultural policy today.
The Institut français is a member of the European EUNIC network, headed by Gitte Zschoch since 2018. It participates, with other European cultural centres and ministries, in organising shared events, sharing expertise and promoting European languages.