What is Europe’s brand of cultural diplomacy and is it attractive in the 21st century?


Picture of Simon Schunz
Simon Schunz

Professor at the College of Europe and Associate Research Fellow at the United Nations University, Bruges

21st century global politics have proven to be particularly chameleonic – mercurial, multi-faceted, but also multi-actor. Dealing with its evolving diversity will require harnessing multiple players’ input regarding a series of pressing and interconnected issues. From climate change to internet governance and regional conflicts, the future will pose myriad major challenges.

Addressing them will entail the negotiation of novel cooperative arrangements involving governmental and non-governmental actors. In this effort, intercultural exchange and the willingness and capacity to seek mutual understanding will be essential. Culture is thus bound to become the central means of facilitating necessary dialogue.

With its ‘brand’ of cultural diplomacy, Europe is uniquely attractive for this world of tomorrow. To understand its key features, one must understand the notion of ‘European culture’. Culture per se can be understood broadly, as defined in the 1982 ‘Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies’, as “the whole complex of … spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society … the arts and letters, … modes of life, … fundamental rights …, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

European culture is then further specified in Article 167 of the ‘Treaty on the Functioning of the EU’ which calls on the EU to “contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”. In the cultural sphere as in other domains, ‘Europe’ is thus more than the sum of its parts.

External perception studies show that non-Europeans tend to associate Europe primarily with football, car-making and the cultural heritage of European nation-states.

Of course, ‘European culture’ is first and foremost the combination of the EU’s members’ national and regional cultures. These include ‘high culture’ – such as Greek philosophy and Italian opera – and ‘popular culture’. External perception studies show that non-Europeans tend to associate Europe primarily with football, car-making and the cultural heritage of European nation-states.

However, there is also something uniquely European about ‘European culture’. This is not so much the EU’s efforts to celebrate ‘European Heritage sites’, such as the centre of Ancient Athens, for their role in European history. Rather, it is precisely what the Mexico Declaration identifies as key constitutive dimensions of culture: rights and “values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”, including minority rights, which “are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail”, expounded in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). The EU’s adherence to pluralism is outlined again in Article 3 of the same treaty, stressing respect for the EU’s “rich cultural and linguistic diversity”. These rights and values form the backbone of the EU’s legal order, guiding its internal and external action in accordance with its motto ‘Unity in diversity’.

More than any tangible European cultural heritage or good, it is this ideational core – with at its heart the practised commitment to diversity – that makes Europe an immensely attractive ‘brand’ in the globalised world of the 21st century.

Sceptics might counter that this ‘European cultural brand’ has shown signs of erosion in recent years. It is true that the initial enthusiasm with which it was celebrated in the first major attempt at conceptualising EU cultural diplomacy, the European Commission’s 2007 ‘European Agenda for Culture in a Globalising World’, no longer holds. Depicting the EU as “an unprecedented and successful social and cultural project … an example of a ‘soft power’ founded on norms and values”, the Agenda prosaically argued that the Union “can be of inspiration for the world”.

When engaging in cultural diplomacy, the EU can and should not compete with the cultural branding efforts of nation-states.

Since then, multiple crises have afflicted the EU: the financial and economic crises challenged its prosperity bases, the ‘refugee and migrant’ crisis called into question its value foundations, nativist-populism best embodied in the ‘Brexit crisis’ represents backlashes against globalisation – and ultimately diversity – by advocating a return to (ethnically-based) nationalism. These developments have dented the EU’s self-understanding and negatively affected the perception of its brand.

However, despite these crises, the core contents of the EU’s cultural diplomacy remain intact. What is more, by showing resilience over the past decade, the EU’s cultural ‘know-how’ when it comes to dealing with diversity and constantly (re-)inventing cooperative arrangements to tackle such crises has actually emerged reinforced. It is this know-how that makes the EU’s brand quite unique: its continuous and sustainable ability to deal with, protect and cherish multinational, multilingual and multicultural diversity through intercultural dialogue and a ‘fallibalistic’ engagement with ‘the Other’ – within Europe, but also beyond. It has allowed the EU to turn a war-torn continent into a – still evolving – democratic, prosperous, socially protective, environmentally and culturally aware supranational entity.

When engaging in cultural diplomacy, the EU can and should not compete with the cultural branding efforts of nation-states. ‘Nation-branding’, from contemporary China to the United States during the Cold War, has regularly been about selling a story of cultural homogeneity and unique attractiveness that borders cultural exceptionalism. Instead of merely engaging in such one-way showcasing of ‘what it is’ as an attractive cultural entity, the EU’s 21st century cultural diplomacy must capitalise on ‘what it does well’: employing its experience in productively dealing with diversity so as to bring parties together to solve regional and global problems.

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