Invest in culture against rising walls in the EU’s neighbourhood


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović
Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailović

Secretary General of Europa Nostra

Picture of Vesna Marjanović
Vesna Marjanović

Secretary General of Europa Nostra Serbia

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

More than a decade ago, when the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was created as part of the EU’s external relations, later to be attached to the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement’s portfolio, many saw it as the writing on the wall for the Western Balkans’ future in the European Union. Impressions and hopes of a steady path towards EU integration have since been undermined quite dramatically.

Instead of becoming ever-closer neighbours, the gulf between the EU and Western Balkans has grown, dangerously so, and the prospect of a new enlargement process is vague and uncertain. Euroscepticism and anti-EU sentiments seem to be prevailing on all sides, and champions of nationalism and disintegration now act as if this was always meant to be. In Belgrade, 30 years after the wars that destroyed the former Yugoslavia, police safeguard graffitied walls depicting convicted war criminals, journalists are frequently harassed and threatened, and democratic activists are defamed in state-controlled tabloids.

Between enlargement fatigue in EU countries and disillusionment and apathy in the Western Balkans, we tend to forget how many dramatic events have happened in our world, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Continuous crises – including the management of European debt, Brexit, the ongoing European migrant crisis, terrorist attacks, the impact of AI and machines on the labour market, and the detrimental effects already caused by climate change – have affected the whole of Europe in different ways and shifted many narratives and priorities. The populists’ learning curve has brought us into a new era of inequality, nationalism, xenophobia and disregard for human rights. Walls and barbed wires are preventing migrants from fleeing to a better life, while simultaneously generating further tensions around these new borders. All this is happening under our watch and behind the façade of Europe’s democracy and values.

The EU should intensify projects in support of our shared European cultural values in the Western Balkans

Post-World War 2 values were embedded in peace and progress and based on human dignity. Have we already witnessed the peak of liberty and human rights? If the answer is no, are we prepared to defend what has been painstakingly built for generations? And how?

“We must remember that it is culture, not war, that cements our European identity” were the words of novelist Umberto Eco. As activists for cultural rights and cultural heritage in Europe, we can clearly see that the cultural bonds we share – histories and heritage, languages and literature, folklore and myths – are all intertwined. Both tangible and intangible, they form the basis of our much-needed sense of solidarity and togetherness. Culture also plays a vital role in encouraging a creative response to political, social and environmental challenges, but only if decision-makers in the public and private sectors acknowledge and respect its multifaceted value.

The recent launch of a dedicated Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport at the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia in October is a most welcomed step. However, we need to make sure that citizens and communities are indeed enjoying the benefits of these initiatives. Developing innovative and holistic approaches to cultural and educational policies, as well as improving access to culture for everyone, especially marginalised, underprivileged and young individuals, is essential. The EU should intensify projects in support of our shared European cultural values in the Western Balkans.

Committed to cultural heritage, Europa Nostra stands ready to contribute to these efforts. When united in protecting and celebrating our shared cultural heritage, Europeans from all corners of the continent can muster a powerful positive energy. This energy is not only a catalyst for peace and reconciliation, but also for sustainable and green transformation of our society, economy and environment.

Culture is a key resource for intellectual renewal and human capital. Active participation in cultural activities helps people develop a creative and critical mindset, a broader understanding of different perspectives and respect for others.

The ideas and principles of the European Green Deal and the New European Bauhaus … must be extended and defended beyond the present borders of the EU

Sustained investment in education and cultural activities must be given equal priority with investment in economy, infrastructure, security and all other areas seen as crucial to Europe’s global competitiveness and stability. Our diversity is what unites us, and promoting this cultural heritage and pluralism will have a positive impact on our strategic goals of innovation and sustainable development. It is also important to foster public participation in cultural and democratic life by engaging with citizens and civil society who are committed to the promotion of inclusion, non-discrimination and democratic values in the management of heritage institutions.

New strategies and programmes should be developed to intensify cultural exchange within the Western Balkans and also between the region and EU member states. This could lead to a re-unification of cultures and memories, in addition to the integration of our markets, and be submitted as a condicio sine qua non of the Western Balkans’ future membership to the EU.

Last but not least, the ideas and principles of the European Green Deal and the New European Bauhaus, which emphasise the vital cultural component of climate action, must be extended and defended beyond the present borders of the EU. Providing coherent support for innovative, sustainable and inclusive urban policies at national and local levels through investment in the protection of heritage, especially in disadvantaged cities and villages, should be a common effort.

The enemies of Europe may be loud, but regardless of the many barriers that we are facing now, we need to reinvent ourselves and make sure that we do not succumb to fear, estrangement and lack of solidarity. The Europeans of the Western Balkans are still dedicated to European values, with the ideals of democracy, human rights and the rule of law at their core. They are the real partners of the European Union.

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