The need for a cultural-political debate in Europe

Martina Michels

Martina Michels (Photo: Louise Schmidt)

The EU — a search for conceptualisations

In 2004 in my hometown of Berlin, politicians, cultural workers, a handful of foreign ministers and the then European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, attended a groundbreaking conference on European cultural policy called A Soul for Europe. It was about ways to give greater prominence to culture in European politics.

Among the participants was the German writer and orientalist Navid Kermani who made the point that European integration lacks the pressure of despair. “If Europe doesn’t work out,” he said, “that won’t stop you from being a Dutch, English or French citizens.” Immigrants like himself, he said, were on much shakier ground because he would always be a German-Iranian in European eyes, and he would always be on the outside.

The EU has a long way still to go before it accepts a broader idea of Europe. Kermani argued back then that the EU needs university exchanges between Islamic, Jewish and Christian Oriental studies. We shouldn’t forget, he argued, that the history of the Orient showed how Islam, Judaism and Christianity were closely intermingled at all levels, and not merely in street.

Outbursts of terror that struck Europe subsequently brought to light the vulnerability of our open societies. The attacks in France were followed by President François Hollande’s declaration of war on IS and French Air Force strikes on Syria. But was there a causal link between the terror acts and the unresolved tragedy in Syria? Weren’t decades of poor social and cultural integration in our cities and peripheries more to blame instead?

Europe can be held partly responsible for some of our global inequalities. And relocating the social and cultural tensions in its midst to somewhere outside the EU will not resolve them, nor will rebuilding borders or giving secret services the power to scrutinise everyone’s lives. Since the Eurozone crisis, the democratic dialogue about integration policy has yet again given way to economic concerns, the securing of resources and market positions. Even left-wing governments like that of Greece have persevered with clearly unsatisfactory austerity measures that will not be able to resolve the social and migrant problems designed by the unelected Euro-group.

Reconsidering culture beyond its common understanding — a broader perspective

What has this all to do with cultural policy? The first answer is simple, although hardly new. We need a European cultural policy just as much as we need democratic dialogue. Many people think that cultural policy concerns only art and education, but in fact it goes way beyond that, reaching out further than the confines of universities and academic institutions. Among other things it will be essential to addressing the issues raised by digitisation, including that the new cultural techniques should be open to everyone, not only people with a higher education or larger incomes. There is also the issue of how poorly jobs in the cultural field are valued, with everyone from event managers to musicians and artists making do on risible pay and with minimal social protection. It is time for people working in this growing sector to be protected by minimum wages and fees, and unemployment benefits. The discussion unfortunately often goes the opposite way: the argument is that cultural workers should be seen as role models for other industries because they put up with hardship and enjoy their work for its creative and innovative dimensions.

Recent developments — culture as civil investment

The working world of tomorrow is likely to shrink as a result of digitisation, which may mean more free time and different attitudes to the distribution of income and time, and the gender dialogue. We all need more space for education and art experiences, recreation, friends and families, and for social and political commitments. For this, too, we need a democratic dialogue.

And this brings us to the central problem.

Local, national and EU-level politicians underestimate the need for a European cultural policy. The distinction is usually made between hard and soft politics, but that doesn’t make sense. We need more people like Romanian essayist Andrei Pleșu, who was his country’s foreign minister and has contributed some wise thinking, instead of the heated language of the “war on terror”. We need to think in terms of a second Enlightenment embracing human rights rather than the “clash of civilisations” that is often the mindset of foreign policy, with its subtext of culturalist stereotypes.

In many EU countries, right-wing populists claim to see a threat to an ethnically homogeneous West, when in fact there never was such a thing. Their concept of the West is sometimes close to that of radical Islam with its hatred of Jews and moderate Muslims. We all have a responsibility for creating a framework for a democratic dialogue on issues of global fundamental rights and freedoms. This work needs to involve schools, the media, cultural exchanges, urban policy, economics and cohesion politics, as well as culture. As the German actor and theatre director Sewan Latchinian once said: “Culture may be expensive, but barbarism is more expensive still.”

The European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) includes foreign cultural policy on its agenda, and recently discussed at length the report by British Social Democrat Julie Ward on the role of intercultural dialogue for promoting EU fundamental rights. It is a critical situation; a 2015 hearing revealed that fewer and fewer people now know about the Holocaust and modern European history. According to one study, languages and inter-cultural skills are no longer considered essential training for teachers and educators. Yet what we need to fight radicalisation in our countries is in-depth political discussion of what intercultural dialogue really means, and the extent that it concerns domestic and foreign policies.

Digitalization — challenge or chance?

Another debate that will occupy us increasingly over the coming years concerns the digital single market (DSM). It is of great interest to the members of the Committee on Culture and Education as it concerns the development of society. The European Commission’s approach to a digital Europe — like its overall approach to the EU in general — is mainly focused on protecting cross-border online consumers, and less on such other issues as film lending, producing in digital formats, and access to culture and knowledge. And yet the digital revolution will affect education, production and communication as a whole, and not only the world’s libraries and universities. But EU policy instead sees digitisation principally as a commercial issue, with some new technology ramifications.

What is needed is a structural-political reform on the approach to culture

The report on the Digital Single Market Act is almost entirely in the hands of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO). The only other perspective is provided by the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT), which has the leading role in the debate on audio-visual media. But surely the concerns raised by the digital agenda affect society as a whole, and not just technology and the single market, and might it not be conceivable in the future to work jointly on such reports? Surely such issues as preserving net neutrality, modernising copyright law and handling the EU’s linguistic diversity in the digital world are all political issues that must be answered through political decisions, as well as through cultural policy.

The digital revolution has changed the worlds of business and work, and it has also produced new audiences, new means of transmitting ideas and information, and new ways of archiving and communicating, of exchanging, and new ways of thinking about culture, politics and ethics. The Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy should also look at how we acquire knowledge, how we manage municipal tasks, handle integration and cultural exchanges, and protect anti-discrimination principles.

In short, it should be clear by now that we need our political debates to have a strong cultural dimension, for cultural policy is increasingly central to all European policy-making. After all, we are citizens before being consumers

Martina Michels (@martina_michels)


Martina Michels has been a Member of the European Parliament (DIE LINKE.) since 2013, working mainly on regional policy as well as culture, media, net policy and education. She is also a member of the EP´s delegation for the relations with Israel and a substitute member of the delegation to the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.

Before that she was elected to House of Representatives in 1991, Berlin’s state legislature, where she served among others as its vice president (1996–1999; 2001–2005) and chair of the Committee for European, Federal Affairs and Media. From 2003 until 2013 she worked moreover in the Committee of the Regions. In 2014 Martina Michels initiated the „EU-Funding-Guide Website“ of the delegation DIE LINKE in the EU Parliament. This project aims to support active civil society in realizing their innovative project ideas by providing easily accessible information on suitable funding opportunities available through EU programs.


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