The Melina Mercouri Legacy


More than 30 years after its creation, at an Acropolis-set meeting of the ministers of culture of the European Economic Community — the Europe of the 10 which has now developed into the EU of 28 –, it is perhaps a good idea to reflect on the history of The European Capital of Culture. I see it through the eyes of an early practitioner as I have been involved in the leadership of “Amsterdam Cultural capital of Europe 1987, A future for Ideas”.

During her visit to Amsterdam in 1985, Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister of Culture at the time, was interviewed by Dutch public television. She responded to the question “What is the idea behind the European Capital of Culture?” as follows: “The idea is to know each other better, to talk about culture and exchange. We have a cultural past and a cultural future. The whole of Europe should be united. Culture is one of the strongest potencies for peace.”

The council of ministers responsible for culture of the EU (European Community at the time) adopted Melina’s idea in their resolution of June 13, 1985.

This resolution that did open up the arena for future events (one per year) of European Capital of Culture did stipulate explicitly the wide range of activities that are foreseen under this title; from presentations of specific aspects of cultural achievements of the organising city and country to a wider European audience on the one hand, to making the local audience familiar with artistic and cultural activities from the other member states on the other hand. It is entirely the responsibility of the chosen city to develop and promote any aspect of their particular interpretation of being nominated as Cultural Capital of Europe, to put it more bluntly: it is up to the local organisers to define what Europe means, what culture should be presented and what cultural identity is to be promoted in whatever format with whom and for which audiences.

Now, more than 30 years after the instalment of Melina’s idea in the daily practise of the EC’s cultural agenda, one can witness a growing pile of reports, studies and recommendations that do represent, if they represent anything, the divergent opinions of the aim, purpose and effectivity of the event.

I would call this the side effect of a booming city-promoting business that in the meantime familiarised itself with the awarding of the title Cultural Capital of Europe. Does this paperwork help the development of the event in cultural and European sense? Hardly. What does not help at all are pleas to bring more structure into the organisational machinery of it.

Apart from a necessary selection procedure (the existing procedure can be evaluated to make it simple and smart) one should stick to Melina’s words and the Ministers’ resolution of 1985. All attempts to uniform procedures, to include so-called experts from previous ECoCs is, looked at with the knowledge of 2016, becoming more and more out of date. Why so?

Back in 1985 the European Community were ten countries. The European Union did not exist. The discussion-making process did not include the citizens; it was a tête-à-tête among ten politicians. The introduction of European Citizenship took place at Maastricht, in 1992. The treaty of Maastricht gave birth to the European Union as well as to the acceptance of the subsidiarity principle for cultural policy (that should remain in the hands of the member states). I would say that after Maastricht the responsibility for the content, programme and organisation of ECoC no longer should be influenced by Brussels. Strangely enough, the opposite is the case. Cities and organisers should reject this tendency firmly, and even more so since the Lisbon Treaty has adopted the European citizenship as an additional entity within the European decision making process.

Since then the Commission is desperately looking for the “active citizen”. If this phenomenon does exist, it should be observable in the yearly event that pretends to present the cultural values of Europe. The most recognised European value nowadays is the European Citizenship. The ECoC therefore has no future apart from a citizens’ achievement without interference from self-propelled or appointed “bobos” from Brussels.

The identity of Europe can be found in the cities: all cities are different, the citizens that built the cities did and do take different solutions depending on the divergent historical, psychological, economic, social and cultural backgrounds. What makes Europe unique is that nothing is alike, everything different: always the same story.

Steve Austen at the Berlin Conference 2006 | Photo: Ulf Bürschleb

Steve Austen, permanent fellow of the Felix Meritis Foundation, Amsterdam, cultural entrepreneur, consultant, publicist, and member of the group of initiators of “A Soul for Europe”. He has been active in cultural life of the Netherlands and Europe since 1966 and was co-responsible for “Amsterdam — The Cultural Capital of Europe 1987”. Together with Günter Grass he co-founded the informal working body “Gulliver”. Since 1987 he has been president and lecturer of the Amsterdam-Maastricht Summer University.

Read more about the A Soul For Europe Pre-Conference debate here and more by Steve Austen here.