‘Culture brings us together while other forces drive us apart’
11 Feb 2022
“When the night of the pandemic took over our private lives, we just sang from the balconies. Culture is decisive for the quality of life. And it’s culture that can bring people back together again after the trauma of the pandemic.” These words of David Sassoli, the late President of the European Parliament, came true last week, when more than 300 European artists, politicians, policy makers and cultural entrepreneurs joined the annual policy conversation on the #CulturalDealEU. The large turn-out was overwhelming for André Wilkens, director of the European Cultural Foundation, one of the three organising partners of the event. “Less than a year ago the Cultural Deal was just an idea, and now it’s becoming reality. We’ve come from far, but I am optimistic now. We can make it happen.”
‘Hello’ from Georgia, Sweden, Moscow, Milan, Slovenia, Croatia, Cyprus, Vienna, Bonn, Bulgaria, Finland, Jerusalem…participants from all over Europe and beyond checked in for the annual policy conversation of Culture Action Europe (CAE), the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) and Europa Nostra, also acting as coordinator of the European Heritage Alliance, to support the plea for a cultural deal: an umbrella strategy to put culture at the heart of public debate and decision-making of the European Union. The deal is a call for mainstreaming culture into all six current priorities of the European Commission, set out by President Ursula von der Leyen in 2019. Von der Leyen sent a video message, thanking all artists and creators who brought light into the dark days of the pandemic through their books, films, music, or video games. “You artists were hit first and longest, but you gave us so much. Now Europe stands ready to help you.”
The pandemic has severely affected the cultural ecosystem with losses up to 90 percent compared with its previous, pre-pandemic turnover. For Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Culture, imminent action is needed. “Current situation left artists, creators and cultural professionals unprotected and more fragile than ever before”. Commissioner Gabriel spoke about actions for the cultural sectors taken by the Commission, but also those planned by some Member States in the context of the Recovery and Resilience Facility of the EU.“ We should follow closely all these good initiatives and see how we can scale them at the European level”, she pointed out. The cultural attachés of the current (French) and coming (Czech) Presidency of the EU Council, Guillemette Madinier and Yvona Havel both promised to listen to the voices of the cultural sector and incorporate their ideas in the Work Plan for Culture 2023-2026 of the EU Council. “We feel the urgency of the theme,” Havel said. In her video message, the French minister of culture Roselyne Bachelot assured that the next Council meeting of culture ministers on April 4 in Luxembourg will address the position of young artists, mobility projects and multilingualism. European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms Elisa Ferreira pleaded for investment in culture and the introduction of new business models for cultural sectors. Culture can be a driver for urban development. “Culture can build communities and help regain a sense of belonging,” she added.
Changing the discourse
But more funding is only one side of the coin. In the chat many participants warned policymakers to not instrumentalize culture to serve health or other sectors, but recognise its intrinsic value. Tere Badia (CAE) rang another alarm bell. “Much money flows straight into the pockets of big institutions, it does not go to the artists. Be careful. The cultural debate should be included in all discussions.”
“We should change the discourse,” Elena Polivtseva from IETM added. “We are an autonomous sector, and as professionals we demand equal treatment with other workers. Social security, gender equality and better working conditions should be addressed.” MEP Monica Semedo will ask governments to “give us numbers on the positions of artists, the lack of access to pensions systems and health care. There must be more focus on mobility, digitalization and training.” MEPs Salima Yenbou, Marcos Ros Sempere and Iskra Mihaylova followed by promising to include culture when addressing other policy topics for which they are responsible in their daily work as the representatives of the European Parliament.
It was Gijs de Vries, former Dutch Secretary of State and MEP, and senior visiting fellow of the London School of Economics, whose message summed up the discussion sharply: “Make the silos dance. It is culture that brings us together where other forces drive us apart.” De Vries was critical on the amounts of money, to which the MEPs and policy makers earlier referred so proudly. “85 million euros for the New European Bauhaus project, ok. But the real money is elsewhere. The European Central Bank is talking about climate, but culture is not mentioned anywhere. We have created a monetary union, but the union of the heart is missing. It’s culture that connects us, not money.” And more Commissioners should speak out. “I would like to see European Commission Vice-President Timmermans give a speech on the role of culture in the European Green Deal. I would love to see Commissioner Schmit talk about the role of culture in European social cohesion and bringing people together. And I would love to see Commissioner Urpilainen talk about culture in EU development policy”, he added. MEP Sabine Verheyen, chair of the EP’s Culture and Education Committee, enhanced De Vries’ call to action: “This is a turning point. Be bolder, raise your voices louder. Endorse culture!”
For the organisers the conversation turned out to be a successful next step. Wilkens: “A commitment is as good as its implementation. The essence of the Cultural Deal is not just a response to Covid. There is now an opportunity for innovations, a new cooperation with the European philanthropic sector, and for co-design.” Indeed, “Let the silos not dance but disappear,” concluded Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, Secretary General of Europa Nostra.