The battle for Europe: what can culture do?


Picture of André Wilkens
André Wilkens

Director of the European Cultural Foundation (ECF)

Europe is under attack from both inside and outside its borders. It’s no exaggeration to describe what is happening as the ‘Battle for Europe’. From the inside, the attacks come from those who would re-nationalise Europe, seal it off and turn it into a copy of its former self, when hostilities between nations so often almost destroyed it. Those attacking the continent from the outside have long regarded a united, supranational and cooperative Europe as a thorn in their side, because it sets a potentially utopian post-modern example to the rest of the world.

The ‘Battle for Europe’ is being fought not with tanks and missiles, but with ideas, narratives, bots and social media. The majority of Europeans do not yet realise that their continent is at war – or that the outcome will have international implications, as history has shown so many times before.

It’s time to defend Europe before it’s too late. But how?

First, we need to open our eyes and understand the gravity of the situation. The battle is cultural, and the battlefields are found in citizen’s hearts and minds, as well as in the media.

We must defend an open, liberal, people-centred, rules-based Europe that stands against national egotism, despotism, exclusion and hatred. It’s about preserving values: international versus national, cooperation versus division, democracy versus autocracy, humanity versus inhumanity.

We must defend this, our Europe, as fervently as its enemies are trying to destroy it. We must defend it among friends, at work and school, in the street and on social media.

The enemies of a shared Europe have understood the power of culture, of symbols, of fashion and how it shapes identity

Second, we must have confidence in Europe. We must not let ourselves be persuaded that European unity has reached its natural endpoint – a spent, outdated relic of yesteryear. The EU is one of the most modern political structures in the world. We don’t need a new narrative or a new business model, as some tell us.

We have a wonderful vision – a model of a supranational Europe based on rights, values and obligations. We’re defending not a boring status quo, but a viable future. Of course, Europe is in no way perfect and urgently needs reforms that put people and the environment first. However, first, we must win the ‘Battle for Europe’. If we fail, there will be nothing left to reform.

Third, we must adopt a smart, strategic approach to this conflict, using tactics that address both internal and external adversaries: “What would strategists like Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Willy Brandt do?”

We need a defence strategy for 21st century Europe – one with culture and communication at its very core. We must invest in a Europe that brings people together, that breaks down national echo chambers, that creates real united European experiences, just as we have done with the Erasmus programme for millions of students. We need much more Erasmus investment, so that every European can gain a European experience.

We should be investing in our public spaces on a grand scale. Airbus showed, nearly 50 years ago, that industrial policy can be used to actualise a better European future by creating a truly trans-European aerospace corporation. Let’s do it again! A functioning European public space is at least as important for the future of the continent as a European airplane was back then, probably even more so now.

So, what can culture do?

Culture has the power to both connect and divide communities. It is the foundation of identity building. Without a collective identity, Europe is vulnerable to nationalistic narratives. European identity is not exclusive but inclusive of national, regional and migrant identities.

Culture can also create a modern European experience. Whatever politics and politicians do, culture should bring Europeans together. These shared experiences can create a 21st century European identity.

Europe needs to respond to these attacks by using culture, media and soft power

Culture manifests itself in the public sphere, which at the moment is still weak in Europe. However, where it exists, culture has been its impetus. Look at the composition of orchestras, festivals, exhibitions, architectural sites and exchanges that generate greater proximity between European citizens. This is obvious if one considers popular events like the Eurovision song contest and the Champions League.

Culture can also help mitigate the potential impact of Brexit by keeping the exchange of people and ideas between Europe and Britain alive, and even intensify it. The United Kingdom is, and should continue to be, an important part of the European cultural community.

The enemies of a shared Europe have understood the power of culture, of symbols, of fashion and how it shapes identity. They have declared an open war on Europe using culture as a weapon, a tool. They invest consciously in a nationalistic counter culture and use political means where they can – for example, by hijacking legislative power over cultural policy and budgets. This is why culture must also provide resistance against neo-nationalist cultural ideologists who put national identity and national culture first.

Europe needs to respond to these attacks by using culture, media and soft power. We need to do this not only with warm words but through concrete action, serious investment and legislation. Culture is much more than an accessory, it creates identity, community and a narrative for the future. Indeed, it is essential for the survival of European unity.

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