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Dr. Uta Staiger: The European Capitals of Culture
Publication date: Feb 27, 2013 2:03:07 PM
Start: Feb 27, 2013 2:00:00 PM
Cultural action in the European Union may be a minor policy field: it enjoyed no formal Community competence until Maastricht, has received all but paltry budget provisions since, and plays little to no role in the key political debates of the day. Yet it is also an exceptionally contested one, linked as it is with suggestions of social governance and the encoding of collective identities. Regularly opposed by some member states wary of Community intervention in this traditionally national (or regional) policy field, its expansion has been described as symptomatic of the ‘EU’s will to power’ (Shore 2006).
As so often, however, the case is a little more complex than that. The European Cities or Capitals of Culture (ECOC) programme, considered one of the most successful cultural initiatives at EU level, is an instructive example. It certainly beats most others in terms of longevity – this January, Marseille-Provence and Košice (Slovakia) have become the 47th and 48th capitals in the ECOC’s 28-year history. Its format too has proven very appealing to EU, national and local interests alike. So much so, in fact, that it has inspired a formidable offspring, the UK City of Culture programme launched in 2013, ‘because it is not until 2022 that another UK city can benefit from the European Capital of Culture programme’. And this in a Member State not especially known for lapping up all things European.
Several factors account for this. First, the ECOC are relatively independent of dirigiste procedures from ‘Brussels’, yet remain firmly anchored in a pan-European framework. When approved by ministers responsible for cultural affairs in 1985 (note: not by Council itself, this was pre-Maastricht), the brief resolution contained virtually no procedural details. Simply meant to ‘highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures’, the ECOC were run loosely under intergovernmental coordination in the margins of both treaties and institutions until well into the 1990s. Only then were procedures formalized, and the programme eventually transferred to EU level. In line with developments in other policy sectors, this was due not to a supranational power-grab but to both national and EU actors aiming to improve transparency, competition and monitoring.
Second, the ECOC have always attracted a wide range of other stakeholders, including local authorities, business interests, cultural organisations and transnationally networked experts. Part of the ECOC’s broad appeal has always been that, while meant to give a cultural basis to integration, they also and perhaps primarily benefit the city and country concerned. As the EU’s contribution is modest – covering only about 1.5% of the total income generated between 1995 and 2004 – and the programme is designed by each city from scratch, organisers need to closely involve expertise from a variety of sectors. Rather than a constraint, these actors have often used the opportunity structures to further not only the ECOC’s European significance, but also their city’s and their own agendas to great effect.
Thus, thirdly, each ECOC can be adjusted, within limits, to serve particular interests and needs. Glasgow 1990 is often considered a watershed moment, turning what had hitherto been high-culture focused summer events in established ‘European’ cities into full-blown, culture-led urban regeneration programmes in less pivotal, often post-industrial cities. It is above all this potential to capitalise on a city’s cultural profile as a tourist destination, investor-friendly location, and high-quality living space, which has sparked so much interest among candidate cities. It does not entirely obliterate the ECCOC’s original mission to highlight their ‘European dimension’, which – through deft interaction of different actors at European level – has returned as a key criterion. However, the exact form and content of it is left to each ECOC to determine.
The particularly felicitous conjunction of these factors may have made the ECOC more successful and less contested than other Community cultural actions. Yet it is representative of them in that it is a multilateral, rather than a Brussels-dictated state-building exercise. Marked by and negotiated between competing interests of institutional and non-state actors at all levels, EU cultural action is these days successful where it makes room for these interests to coalesce.
You can find more on the subject in the new publication:
The Cultural Politics of Europe; European Capitals of Culture and European Union since the 1980s
Edited by Kiran Klaus Patel