European Union and cultural policy: EU for EUthanasia?

By Olga Kolokytha

 The news of the possible closing of the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) was a shock for the cultural community. And the reason given, that funding was no longer available to sustain the orchestra, was a very bad surprise. So, the EU has suddenly decided to stop funding an orchestra which has provided training and experience to numerous world-class musicians, has brought music to a variety of audiences in Europe and worldwide and was one of the EU’s most high- profile cultural inventions. The negative resonance of this move is amplified by the fact the EU has introduced a new strategy for cultural diplomacy, to which the EUYO and many other similar EU- funded cultural organisations have been already actively contributing for decades.  At the end of May, the Commission announced that are trying to find funding for the orchestra[1], but at the time of writing this post no actual solution has been found.

EUYO c-peter-adamik (1)
EU Youth Orchestra – Copyright Peter Adamik

Culture nowadays is increasingly seen as a commodified good rather than a fundamental value that citizens should have access to and funding for culture is going through difficult times. Culture has been placed on the EU table clearly with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992; even before that, the establishment of the European Capital of Culture in 1987 revealed the role it would play for the EU, which has viewed it as a unifying factor that shapes European identity and citizenship[2], recognizing the right of the citizens to it through providing funding and opportunities to access it. The new Creative Europe programme[3] which substituted the previous Culture and MEDIA ones is now the main EU funding programme for culture but although it claims to promote culture, it actually appears to be more of a tool for the promotion of financial aims rather than an instrument for the provision of culture to the citizens.

Historically, there is a shift in focus towards a more financial view of culture and the EU appears to be shifting from a cultural democracy to a governmentalisation of culture philosophy (for more on cultural democracy and governmentalisation of culture see Evrard, 1997; Pyykönen, 2012)[4]. The EU is using creative industries as examples of resilience to the financial crisis (Sarikakis, 2014[5]; Lodge& Sarikakis, 2012[6]), although proving that is problematic given the particular characteristics of those industries and the difficulties in measuring them (O Hagan, 2014[7]; Schuster, 2007[8]). The EU has also decided to include in the Creative Europe programme the video games sector, an already profitable one and certainly one that is not in need of public money to survive. Most importantly, Creative Europe demonstrates a shift from long- term strategic planning for culture to a more short-term, project-based thinking, something that is obvious from the discontinuation of financing of the organisations formerly acting as ambassadors of European culture, one of which is the EUYO.

Is this the new face of the EU? One that is unable to, or incapable of, or unwilling to, recognize the long-term benefits of culture, and one that appears unfaithful to its commitments to its citizens regarding diversity and access to their cultural life and heritage?

In the past, the EU appeared to be based on internal diplomacy and cultivation of a common identity to serve the integration project, relying on culture as a common denominator for this purpose. At the time of writing this post, the European Commission has released a communication on a strategy on culture at the heart of EU international relations[9] linking culture with sustainable development, enlargement and neighbourhood policies; a strategy, however, that seems too broad, general and vague. It is worth noting here the strange timing of the release of this communication on a strategy that seeks international partnerships, at a point when campaigning for the UK Referendum on EU membership is underway and the EU is discontinuing funding of emblematic cultural organisations based in the UK such as the EUYO.

The EU is undergoing what is probably the most difficult period since its inception; complicated circumstances of financial, social and political turbulence and the ongoing situation regarding immigration and refugees are some of the new challenges that it appears totally unable to respond to. All these issues have a strong impact on matters of identity and integration and also on the shaping of culture and cultural expression. In these times a common point of reference is of great importance, and this, at least in the past, was culture.

The EU is not only drawing borders on the outside, but on the inside as well. This incident demonstrates how the EU is contradicting itself, and on a deeper level how profound the institutional crisis and its identity confusion really are.

[1] http://www.euyo.eu/discover/news/eu-commission-agree-to-fund-euyo/

[2] See for example https://ec.europa.eu/research/social-sciences/pdf/policy_reviews/development-of-european-identity-identities_en.pdf

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/creative-europe/

[4] Evrard, Y. (1997). Democratizing Culture or Cultural Democracy in The Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society 27:3, pp. 167-175.

Pyykkönen, Miikka (2012) “UNESCO and cultural diversity: democratisation, commodification or governmentalisation of culture?”, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 18:5, 545-562.

[5] Sarikakis, K. (2014). Identity and diversity in European media policy: Crisis changes everything(?). In: Donders, K., Pauwels, C., & Loise, J. (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of European Media Policy. Palgrave Macmillan

[6] Lodge, J., & K. Sarikakis (2013). Citizens in ‘an ever-closer union’? The long path to a public sphere in the EU. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 9(2), 165-181 on http://homepage.univie.ac.at/katharine.sarikakis/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Lodge-Sarikakis-Citizens-in-an-ever-closer-union-The-long-path-to-a-public-sphere-in-the-EU.pdf

[7] John O’Hagan (2014): European statistics on cultural participation and their international comparability, International Journal of Cultural Policy, DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2014.973870

[8] J. Mark Schuster (2007) Participation Studies and Cross-National Comparison: Proliferation, Prudence, and Possibility, Cultural Trends, 16:2, 99-196, DOI: 10.1080/09548960701299815

[9] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-2074_en.htm and also http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1465397367485&uri=JOIN:2016:29:FIN

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