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European cultural diplomacy – why is it important and how should it be practised?

Europa United is delighted to welcome Yannis Karamitsios as a contributor. Originally from Thessaloniki in Greece, since 2006 Yannis has resided in Brussels as a legal officer in the European Commission. He is a convinced federalist and he dedicates big part of his public action to the promotion of European and international federalism. In his first piece for Europa United, Yannis discusses the art of cultural diplomacy Europe style and what effect it has on influencing situations and impacts on the international stage. Yannis also outlines concepts for the promotion of European Union values outside of the current union of members.

It is really difficult to tell what has had greater impact on the world: the U.S. army or Hollywood? The English navy or English language? The French industry or French political thinking, philosophy and literature? Brazilian agriculture or Brazilian football?

Culture may serve as the long and soft arm of a nation to the rest of world. A state exercises cultural diplomacy in an organised fashion to achieve its political or economic goals abroad and even strengthen its geopolitical interests and national security. The example of “ping pong diplomacy” that marked the thaw of Chinese-American relations in the early 1970s is characteristic. Cultural diplomacy may contribute to conflict prevention, post-conflict reconciliation or the fight against violent extremism, but it can also support global campaigns for sustainable development and inclusive growth. It may even generate economic benefits. According to a study by CISAC and UNESCO in 2015, cultural and creative industries represent around 3% of global GDP, while in the EU alone they account for over 7 million jobs.

Europe has traditionally used the high quality and diversity of its arts and culture to “export” the ideas of democracy, freedom of expression, rule of law or gender equality. The EU should continue that tradition in a more organised and systematic fashion. It should develop its own coherent cultural diplomacy to exercise a transformative influence on the people around the world. Its ultimate strategic objective should be the use of European culture and its values as a tool to enhance European interests and alliances, as well as a medium to help the rest of the world use those values in their own interests and the best interests of humanity as a whole.

Instituto Cervantes

Spain’s Instituto Cervantes

Europe is not alone in this global effort for cultural influence. China has already established 1,500 teaching centres in 140 countries known as a network of ‘Confucius centres’. The Confucius network is modelled after the U.K.’s British Council, France’s Alliance Francaise and Spain’s Instituto Cervantes.

Principles and tools of cultural diplomacy

The European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy established in 2016 several guiding principles for EU action in the area of international cultural relations. It is important to highlight a few of them which are considered essential – promotion of cultural diversity and respect for human rights; fostering of mutual respect and inter-cultural dialogue; encouragement of a cross-cutting approach to culture which would also include – beyond arts – tourism, education, research, or protection of cultural heritage.

Cultural diplomacy in practice

Cultural diplomacy could be exercised abroad, at the location of foreign countries, or within the EU territory, for instance through Europe-based media and institutions.

Cultural diplomacy practiced abroad

The EU should aim at establishing in each non-EU country a European Civilisation Centre to promote European culture, values and image. Those centres would host libraries, art exhibitions, seminars, speeches, and would also organise film, theatre, dance, culinary and other festivals. They would offer training, language courses, art courses, information about European education and opportunities for professional and academic development in Europe, and also other key information about how to access the main aspects of the European world. Their message to local people should be clear and optimistic: Europe is a beacon of civilisation, stability and hope – come to get to know us, and we are glad to share with you our mutual ideas, inspiration and opportunities for a brighter life.

We also need to make sure that when international cultural policy is exercised in the foreign country, it is as inclusive as possible: its design and implementation must involve local civil society, educational and cultural institutes, artists, intellectuals and media. Cultural diplomacy should particularly be addressed to young people, because they are more receptive and could prove long-term allies of European values and objectives. It should be standardised but also flexible enough, depending on the nature of the receiving people: Latin American people may be more interested in particular aspects of European culture, while African or Asian might more interested in others.

Cultural diplomacy practiced in the EU

International cultural policy, when designed and implemented in European territory, should also be inclusive. It should involve civil society and institutions with experience in international co-operation. It would systematically address the embassies and consulates of all other countries in the EU territory to explore channels of cultural interaction. The EU should establish in its territory TV- and web channels in all main languages of the world with focus on European culture and values. Moreover, international cultural relations should become a standard subject of education, research and specific training programs for business, NGOs or artists with particular interests in this area.

Cultural policy towards neighbouring regions

The EU should particularly focus on the development of its cultural ties with the neighbouring regions of north Africa, Middle East and post-Soviet republics. It could therefore allocate more resources for its cultural policy towards those countries than the others.

European cultural ties with Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs, Turks, Berbers, Israelis, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris and all other people of our broader region are strong and with deep historic roots. The EU should strengthen them further with the purpose to shape a regional policy of dialogue, friendship, trust and understanding. By using all tools described above, the EU would send a message of inclusiveness that our common regional interests are much more important than any of our differences. The neighbouring countries of the EU could feel fortunate for having such a powerful neighbour of peace, freedom and prosperity. They would be welcome to know more about the European culture and values, and share them freely.

The EU should build its regional cultural policy upon a series of projects already developed. We derive inspiration from programmes such as the EU’s support to the Anna Lindh Foundation in the South Mediterranean. We would also support projects like the “Young Arab Voices” that deepens the dialogue between young leaders and civil society representatives, and develops counter-narratives to violent radicalisation. Another interesting example is the ‘Community-Led Urban Strategies in Historic Towns‘, a project that seeks to stimulate development by enhancing cultural heritage in historic towns in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.

Young Arabs Voices

A recent promo for the Young Arab voices

An investment for generations to come

The EU must develop its own and more coherent policy on cultural diplomacy to promote European values all over the planet, and also promote its interests and geopolitical position. This is getting more and more important in an ever inter-connected and globalised world. To that purpose, the EU would need to allocate serious resources in its annual budgets. Those resources would be necessary to establish European Cultural Centres in as many as possible foreign countries, as proposed above. They will also be necessary to establish new media platforms, continue running cultural projects and carry out the respective research. This would be a truly long-term investment for the current and future generations in Europe and the rest of the world.

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1 reply »

  1. As you may have seen umpteen times Yannis, I am by discipline a social anthropologist. When I do not have my hand in my normal specialisation and am being an allrounder culture becomes a basic tool of understanding humanity. Thus I say, we must be very, very careful when we use that word. I have occasionally been stuck with little money in various places in the world and found refuge in doing a bit of English teaching with the British Council, this know that indeed in their better funded days they really did extend a kind of diplomacy. To call it ‘cultural diplomacy’ seems a bit ambitious since their role was to educate. That is to say, to educate or inform the British way of life where they had a base in the many countries they were/are in. The value of presenting Shakespeare in New Delhi may be questionable for some, but for people with any level of interest in the Bard’s plays and sonnets as students, academics or just for love of the work it is educative before cultural. Culture itself is too local, too personal and thus, in the case of the BC or any equivalent to claim they are presenting British culture is rather far from reality. Culture consists of the beliefs, concepts, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Those things we see offered as culture goods are no more than snapshots since even the smallest nations in the world have no single culture; the point about the arts, language and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement is that they are the work of individuals who write books, paint, sculpt, write plays and all else but then each is different to the other making a separable culture for each creator. Otherwise we would have totally boring homogeneity.
    That is not to say I disagree with a single word you say, quite the opposite. I thoroughly agree in as far as I can given I cannot accept the uniformity of any concept of culture, thus the notion of cultural diplomacy is for me an oxymoron.

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