The Council of the European Union is increasingly focusing on Culture as a strategic tool for development, security and diplomacy, and has invited UNESCO to stimulate the Council’s policy debate on “Towards a EU strategy for international cultural relations” by sharing its insight and experience.
The debate of the Education, Youth, Culture and Sports Council, attended by European Ministers of Culture among others, took place in Brussels on 22 November 2016. In opening the discussion Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, underscored that “culture is addressing the most pressing challenges of our time, from fostering development that is truly sustainable, to countering violent extremism, to protecting our cultural heritage for future generations. It must form the bedrock of international relations and diplomacy.”
The European Union, a Party to the UNESCO 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, communicated in June 2016 a Strategy for international cultural relations which provides a key framework for policies on sustainable development and serves as a best practice in implementing this Convention. In exploring how to bring about a more strategic approach to culture in external relations, the EU is taking into account not only culture’s impact in furthering international cooperation and trade, as for example through the flow of cultural goods and services or the growth of cultural industries, but also culture’s importance to social cohesion and human rights.
Ms Alice Bah Kuhnke, Sweden’s Minister for Culture and Democracy, said that “as more countries turn inward, it is more important than ever to assert our values. Culture can contribute to building a more open, cohesive society." Ms Lydia Koniordou, Greece’s Minister of Culture and Sports, discussed refugees and explained how involving migrant children in cultural events helped to instill in them “hope for the future and an awareness of the past."
Another important feature of the exchanges was the protection of cultural heritage, with special concern raised regarding heritage under threat or in emergency situations. The “Emergency Safeguarding of Syrian Cultural Heritage” project funded by the EU with the support of the Governments of Flanders and Austria was showcased as a model of how culture can restore social cohesion and sustainability in conflict areas, including through monitoring, a database of experts, capacity building for stakeholders, and mitigating damage and destruction of heritage through national and international awareness-raising efforts. Mr Dario Franceschini, Italy’s Minster for Cultural Assets and Activities and Tourism, said that “it is our common heritage which is at risk and the EU can play an important leadership role in its protection."
Areas of cooperation and partnership between the EU and UNESCO were also discussed, including through UNESCO six Culture Conventions protecting heritage or promoting the diversity of cultural expressions, as well as the EU’s recent designation of 2018 as the European Year of Cultural Heritage. In stressing the future of the EU strategy, Mr Marek Madarič, Minister for Culture of Slovakia and Chair of the Council of EU (Education, Youth, Culture and Sports) concluded "Culture is a cornerstone of Europe. Let us foster it, and we will generate enormous benefits."