French Fashion, Real Soft Power and Civil Society. Challenging Perspectives and Voices on Cultural Europe

German cars or French fashion – European culture is even among specialists for cultural policy often perceived through symbols of commercial success. And for some, the EU is not as much a cultural entity or a cultural commonwealth but merely individual countries with particular cultural – often folkloric – traditions. However, European culture is foremost regarded as political culture – and a powerful soft power tool.

The following is a snapshot of six debates about Cultural Europe conducted by Elan for Europe together with ifa. Under the title 'Europe from the outside' 25 speakers from 16 countries put aspects of Cultural Europe in question and gave astonishing inspirations.

Political Culture and Soft Power

In Asia where old-standing conflicts are not resolved and sometimes no real reckoning with the past has happened, Europe as Nobel peace prize winner is perceived as an example for a possible reconciliation between Korea and Japan, Taiwan and China and for the recognition of Japan's difficult imperial past. Western Balkan countries are looking at Europe's thriving civil society as an example of real democratisation. Participants from Africa and the Arab World are in high demand for concrete initiatives of Europe's instruments of cultural foreign policy in terms of the creation of free spaces for artistic expression that can contribute to the creation of a larger civil society and eventually democratisation.   

Every participant seems to be also conscious that Europe itself is part of, as Professor J. P. Singh puts it 'an evolving global civil society' a notion that according to him goes back to European writers like Kant or Habermas.

A movement of global solidarity that made Donald Trump hate Greta Thunberg and the Indian government the fact that the Singer Rihanna said we should be paying attention to these farmers who are protesting – because both have as representatives of a global social movement a real impact.

– J. P. Singh

Colonial Past

The perceptions of Cultural Europe are to varying degrees in different world regions shaped by the continents' colonial past – the further the region away and the wealthier it is the more neutral seems to be the attitude to this colonial past. US citizens with their numerous European roots have generally positive attitudes. Asian participants are proud of their own culture and have a quite neutral stand to Europe. A participant from Peru understands his country that becomes more and more a cultural melting pot and that is rightly proud of its 5000 years of indigenous history but also actively incorporating its European heritage. In the words of Roger M. Valencia, a former Minister of Culture of Peru:

Most people say, Spain conquered Peru: that's a mistake because there was no Spain and there was no Peru because it was a different political structure.  It was conquered by the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V. The emperor was actually born in what today is Belgium, and he was raised in Austria and 'spricht deutsch'. It was a fascinating guy who spoke Spanish only as a third or fourth language. That globalization that was triggered by the discovery conquest and the arrival of Europeans to America and to Asia was the first globalization. Charles V was actually the first emperor in whose kingdom the sun never set.

The debates with participants from the Middle East and Africa were more emotionally charged. The usefulness of European cultural policy in terms of the numerous concrete projects and artists that have been funded is acknowledged. However, Espéra Donouvossi, cultural manager from Benin, pointed out:

that we, Africa, has never been co-formulating any policy with Europeans about the cultural sector. We have not been involved, as far as I know, into any discussion on what we think could be the best idea. (…) strategies are only projected for European interests, from European perspective and also to promote European values.

The implicit accusation of neo-colonialism emerged several times, while participants made it also quite clear that they have their own political agenda like for example promoting the Palestinian national cause through arts and culture.

Yet the fact European cultural foreign policy promotes popular participation, free expression and social justice through artistic and cultural projects was regarded as positive by all participants. This especially in the wake of an increased presence of actors like Turkey and China that are perceived as promoting through their cultural foreign policy authoritarian worldviews in Africa, the Southern and Western-Mediterranean and the Balkans.

#ElanEurope2021, European culture and cultural policy from the 'outside', event series, ©Elan

Knowing what is needed – but not doing it!

Criticism against European Cultural Relations concerned two points: abandoning cultural actors to authoritarian regimes and the short-term assistance that is discontinued when political decision-makers change priorities. In this context the Arab Spring where initially massive help for cultural projects were provided but faded away when it was most needed in the wake of the restoration of authoritarian regimes in most countries is cited as an example.

The recommendations made throughout these debates are not new and according to the participants they are understood by European cultural actors. Yet too often they are overlooked or simply ignored by European political decision-makers. Recommended is the intensification of cultural exchanges especially through large-scale student exchanges. They provide eye to eye dialogue and shared development of projects with a real long-term engagement. A grassroots outreach to traditional and popular culture and not a concentration on elitist culture behind the walls and sometimes barbed wired European cultural institutes. The increase of knowledge about the 'other' through virtual mobility, media and translations for example into and from European, Asian and African languages.

A general consensus emerged about the need to foster a truly global civil society in the sense of a cultural 'alliance for democracy' in which Europe should with all its capacity as a soft power take part on an equal footing with other regions around the globe. How this could be achieved is the topic of the final debate on the 9th of June, 2021, 12:30 (CET).

The final debate