Who will be the UK’s European Capital of Culture in 2023?

Updated June 2016 with news on bidding cities and the selection in Croatia for ECOC2020.

Updated August 2015 to highlight the report from the panel on the pre-selection (shortlisting) for the ECOC in 2020 in Croatia.


A UK city will be the European Capital of Culture in 2023. It will share the title, and work with, a city in Hungary. 2023 may seem a long way off but cities thinking of bidding should be starting their preparations now. The bids will need to be completed in mid-2017 for shortlisting. The final selection, based on revised bids, will be in 2018.

So far Leeds and Milton Keynes appear to have set up bidding teams; will more join the competition?  Dundee will decide to bid in September.  Cardiff may put a bid together.   These are leaving it very, very, late to put a bid together.  Many recent ECOCs have spent 3-5 years before the submission of the bid.  Why the long time?  Because it is no longer a top down application which can be prepared by a city administration and a few cultural operators.  The criteria require extensive consultation and  participation in the development of the bid.  Not just marketing or convincing people but actively seeking views and acting on them.  This poses a challenge to city administrations and as importantly to the cultural sector in a city.  In essence a bid says “we are not satisfied with our cultural offer and we seek to transform our city through culture (and other sectors).  Putting a programme together also involves considerable visits to other ECOCs and in finding partners for projects across Europe (and beyond). 

An ECOC is not a big celebration of the present but a transformational programme for the future.

They, and other cities considering bids may find the report on the pre-selection of the ECOC in 2020 in Croatia useful.  It is the first report based on the new criteria for ECOCs from 2020.   Four cities, out of 8, were shortlisted.

The Panel selected Rijeka at the final selection. The report is here.   The panel will select the Irish city as the co-ECOC in 2020 in July. there are three candidates (Galway, Limerick and the Three Sisters (Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny)

There is a new guide for cities considering or preparing to bid . This is essential reading!!    http://ec.europa.eu/culture/tools/actions/documents/ecoc-candidates-guide_en.pdf

As the current chair of the Selection Panel of the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) I see bids from candidate cities in many countries and all start their bid preparations well in advance. Many spend five or six years preparing their bid, well in advance of the official announcement.

A key point to notice is, of course, this is the EUROPEAN Capital of Culture.. not the UK City of Culture title successfully held by Derry-Londonderry in 2013 and awarded to Hull for 2017. That competition was part of the legacy of Liverpool becoming the last UK city to be awarded the ECOC title, in 2008.

The criteria at European level are different to the UK version; they are also different from the ones used to select Liverpool (let alone Glasgow’s ground breaking programme in 1990).  The selection process also differs to the UK City of Culture.

The Culture Ministers of the 28 EU member states have recently agreed the new programme and the European Parliament have also completed their formalities. The formal “Decision” will be published shortly. There is a preview later in this post.

So what does a candidate city have to focus on?  Well each city will be different; it will have its own objectives and purpose. There is no single magic template which guarantees a successful bid or programme. The title is not awarded simply because a city is in the UK (and still in the EU of course).  A city’s size is not relevant.  Nor is its cultural heritage a major factor.

An ECOC is based on a future programme and not a celebration of the past. Successful cities integrate the standard selection criteria with their own local objectives. The “legacy” is important: what are the longer term outcomes?  In recent years the budgets for the ECOC programme have varied from €20m in the smaller and newer EU member states to between €50 and €80m in western European countries. The money is spread over the five or six years of the overall programme.  This is on top of the usual cultural budget of a city and excludes any infrastructure or new buildings. Several recent ECOCs have successfully bid for EU regional funds for culturally related projects (mostly linked to cultural tourism).  Most ECOCs build up to a management team of 40-50, plus hundreds of volunteers.

There are six criteria. These are set out in detail, together with the background to the programme, in the new formal “Decision” which covers the competition from 2020 to 2033. Cities thinking of bidding should read the document closely (that old adage from school “remember to read the question first!”). The final version is here:

Final Decision 2020-2033

The first criteria is that a city must have an existing cultural strategy even before it can bid. The ECOC is not a one year “super-festival” but needs to be part of the overall cultural development of a city which in turn is part of a city’s strategy. This is one of the reasons potential bidding cities may need to start soon, developing their city’s cultural strategy takes time.

Four criteria will be familiar to cultural managers:  outreach (including the involvement of citizens in the development of the bid), management, the capacity to deliver and a high artistic and creative content. “Culture” in the context of an ECOC has a wide interpretation: all artforms from djs to opera, new media, community and participatory arts, arts in schools, hospitals,  languages, creative industries etc.   The focus is on the programme which normally progressively builds up to the events of the year.  The programme needs to be additional to the existing cultural offer in the city (as is the programme budget).

A common and crucial feature is that it is a highly international programme. Some ECOCs have an international aspect to virtually every project or event or base their programme around European themes.

The remaining criteria is the one which marks the ECOC out from national cities of culture: the “European Dimension“.  The programme must highlight the cultural diversity of Europe (to the cities own citizens and not using the title solely as a tourist/city branding exercise), highlight European themes and the common aspects of European cultures, heritage and history. This is a challenging criteria and one which is of major importance.  Recent ECOCs have developed a wide range of imaginative projects to meet this European Dimension requirement.

What should cities thinking of bidding do now?  My advice is to go and visit the two current  ECOCs, (and those already selected for 2015 to 2018) to learn. There is a wealth of good practice, and lessons to learn and share.  Riga and Umea hold this year’s title and are in full swing.  In 2015 the title goes to Mons and Plzen; in 2016 to Donostia San Sebastian and Wroclaw; in 2017 to Aarhus and Pafos. In 2018 Valletta and Leeuwarden share the title.  Several of these ECOCs have their bid-books (in English) online. All are working hard to develop their programmes.

Later this year the Selection Panel will recommend the cities in Italy and Bulgaria for the 2019 title.  There were 21 candidates in Italy and 8 in Bulgaria.  There are now 6 on the shortlist in Italy and 4 in Bulgaria.  Read the Panel’s reports on the pre-selection shortlisting.

There are clear short-term and long-term benefits for a city holding the ECOC title. These are outlined in the recent report commissioned by the European Parliament from Beatriz Garcia of Liverpool University.  Recent holders of the title (eg Marseilles-Provence,) are in no doubt about the success of their programmes. Many cities which were not successful in the competition find they have made significant gains: the bidding process in itself was more than worthwhile.

Who will bid for the title when it comes to the UK? I’ve no idea but now (June 2016) is the time to be deeply into preparing the bid.  Good luck to all the candidates!




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