Unity through Conferences

It’s November and the conference season in full swing across Europe. Austerity and cuts may be the dominant reality but Europe’s cultural cosmopolitans have their boarding passes at the ready.

The ever-welcome newsletter of the Platform for Intercultural Europe (PIE) sets the scene.  Conferences in Belfast, Brussels, Turin, Vilnius, Helsinki, Brussels (again), Cosenza, and Kobuleti; and that’s just November.  Amidst this cornucopia of lanyards, name tags and lost luggage two themes emerge, the ever-changing make-up of European societies and how “culture” can, or should, solve Europe’s problems.

I’m sure that participants in all these events will come away energised with new ideas, some which may be put into practice.  My own more limited hope is that conference organisers put as much as possible onto their websites after the event. It is so frustrating to read the programme, perhaps read some advance papers, and, then, nothing more. (advance #Hashtags also useful!).

The Platform’s newsletter goes some way to open up one series of meetings.  The European Commission’s use of expert groups has come under criticism recently from the European Parliament. The PIE reports on a meeting in Brussels of the “Open Method of Co-ordination” .. an expert group on  “Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue”. It’s a comprehensive report: just as well as I can’t find any formal minutes or names of members. “Open” clearly does not mean “public” which is a shame in today’s more transparent requirements of governance.

I was taken by Chris Torch’s expert paper prepared for the meeting in which he gives an overview of migration and poses some ways forward for the arts sector to address social cohesion and diversity issues.  A sound paper but one I felt stopped short of proposing the radical changes needed.  It seems the OMC meeting itself also took the easy way out with its interim view that arts organisations should perhaps carry on as usual and merely add some additional “community” arts to their programmes.  The EU prides itself on its “Unity in Diversity” but nowhere more so than the ways member states deal with their own citizens and residents in their countries.  This point was raised at the meeting by representatives of member state governments. The Torch paper underplays the wide nature of “migrants” weakening many assumptions and recommendations he made.  There are, post 1945, four main waves of migration, loosely described as “guest worker”, post colonial, economic and intra-EU free movement. Western Europe has seen the four waves, in different mixes, from the 1950s. The newer member states in Central Europe had a long period of increasing mono-culture and a more recent and shorter experience of both emigration and fluidity.  Countries with a history of being emigrants themselves now find themselves receiving migrants. In many countries migrants, as in newcomers, are outnumbered by second and third generation citizens, no longer migrants nor should they be considered as such. Racism not migration is the issue.

Each country has a different mix based on their own history. I found both the Torch paper and the report on the meeting too timid in their views. The hard topics are avoided: religious  and cultural differences, the rise of overt racism (in Greece for example with Golden Dawn, in Hungary etc). In short: the policies and practices of the last decade do not seem to be working. More of the same is not enough.  What was missing from the Torch paper and it seems from the OMC is the realisation that change is needed within the arts and creative industry sectors, as employers of managers and artists. Adding activities on the margins of the mainstream is not enough.

Brussels naturally, hosts two conferences which look at two sides of the second mega-theme.  Culture Action Europe, a lobby group for the arts sector, opens with a programme  Let’s ask ourselves: what we can do for the European project, in what ways can we be useful? And then: engage to do it!   I do admire the conference’s aim ” A starting point for a large-scale movement of European citizens, regardless of the sector in which they are engaged, to reclaim the destiny of the European project.”

These arts sector orientated debates are followed two weeks later at the Brussels Conversations on a Cultural Coalition for a Citizens Europe, discussing “the future of the European project and the citizen’s role in making it a reality”.  A brave aim when many are questioning the very concept of the European project. Was the Nobel Peace Prize the final accolade for the project now it has achieved its original aim of ensuring enduring peace between France and Germany?  I do like the conference proposition that  “The lectures and workshops in this encounter will move beyond the theoretical-legal-philosophical discussion and show that citizenship and its cultural component is something we should practice in our daily lives”.

A busy time indeed. And myself?  Well not to be left out I’m speaking at a conference in Paris on 23 November.  My theme?  “Europe: cultural solutions to a wicked problem?”

 

More Europe or More European?

“More Europe”;  “Less Europe”:  calls triggered by the eurozone crisis and the inability of the politicians to solve it for more than a few months or even weeks at a time.   Pro-Europeans seek More Europe; euroseptics seek and look forward to the demise of the EU, or at least its fading away to a trading alliance.

The euro crisis highlights a major weakness of the EU, one known for many years. The Euro-elite quite simply ignore the citizens.  The Monnet method, little by little so no-one notices has been exploded.  Everyone notices now (except the euro-elite of course).

Do we have a European Union of citizens?  We take advantage of its many advantages from cheaper  roaming phone calls, ease of low-cost flights, open borders and a common currency for many, no visas and only slightly longer border queues for the rest.  But the crisis has shown the cultural fault lines.   North/South; hardworkers/skivers; tax payers/tax avoiders.  A stereotype blame game.   Perceptions are far ahead of reality.

Unity in diversity, perhaps the weakest euro-jargon phrase ever thought up, hardly papers over the cracks. Indeed it has become the clarion call for less Europe.

The Euro-elite call for more Europe, for a more cultural Europe.   Mega superstars,  Rem Koolhaas and Luc Tuymans, riding on global success and commercial marketing, call for deeper citizenship based on a shared culture.   Throughout history there have been sharing of cultures in architecture, in classical music, in some literary areas.  The Beatles to Lady Gaga to  Adele transcend anything the Eurovision Song Contest throws up.  The Soul for Europe meets in November in Berlin focussing on “civil society” and cultural values.    The Danish EU presidency brings together more eminent culture players in “Team Europe“, including the obligatory conference in Brussels for probably the same audience as all the events in Brussels attract.  The Institute of Ideas brings Euro-sceptics for a debate whether the EU will be the death of democracy.

But is the European Commission starting to wake up?   Tucked away in a corner, hidden from the headlines, it has asked us for our views on being European citizens. And on those areas we care about when we move between countries.    Moving from one country to another, baffling administrative arrangements,  discriminatory tax arrangements, denial of democratic rights. inconsistent health  and social security arrangements.

The Commission produced a very good report in 2010 on the problems of the “free movement of people”. Their scorecard on progress is a masterpiece of hiding just how few changes have taken place.

They are asking for your opinion.     If you move within the EU.. as a tourist, as a student, as a worker, a retiree. If you are in a partnership with someone from another member country, or want to live in another, or vote or fall ill, now is your chance to have your say.

“No taxation without representation” worked in 1776.  About time it worked in the EU; we  should be able to vote in national elections where we live as well as European Parliament and local.  Tax rules explicitly discriminate against fellow EU citizens.

For me it seems absurd that after 60 years European governments have done so little to facilitate free movement of people: surely the most fundamental cultural aspect of a European Union of citizens.  More Europe means just that: More European.

Make your views known.

The new soft power player: people

Soft power is associated with nation states or groupings of states.  The “West’s ” soft power played a key role in ending the Cold War according to its proponents.  The more adventurous supporters go further: the “Beatles and demin” were more powerful than economic collapse and missiles.

The USA has soft power; the EU is trying to think of its soft power, China is embarking on a major soft power drive.

Nowadays the term soft power is used indiscriminately. Rather like public diplomacy a few years ago. It has become the fashion in thinking circles.

The term itself embodies two very opposite characteristics. Soft.. nice the cuddly.  The arts, schools, universities, academics talking to each other, consumer goodies.  It is extended into the universal values arena:  political groupings which accept defeat and opposition; democracy, religious freedom etc.

Power is overlooked.  Power is hard by definition.  This is not the area of mutual understanding and awareness to use another universal phrase.

Power means convincing others to do what you want them to do.. and which they are not doing now.

“Soft power is no power” is a common riposte from the hard powerists (trade, military, the world of sanctions, boycotts, leading up to invasions and conflict).  There is very little serious evaluation of whether soft power really works.  Lots of theory; lots of anecdotes, lots of belief and an increasing number of indices (see my earlier articles and here).  But where’s the evidence?  I’ll explore this in the next article in this series.

But there is a new soft power on the block:  people,  individual people.  It is likely that the online digital activism of Avaaz.org and others will block the relatively secretly organised international agreement on internet control:  ACTA.

Nellie Kroes, the European Commissioner says:

“We have recently seen how many thousands of people are willing to protest against rules which they see as constraining the openness and innovation of the internet. This is a strong new political voice,” Kroes said in a speech at the Re:publica conference in Berlin. “And as a force for openness, I welcome it, even if I do not always agree with everything it says on every subject.”

“We are now likely to be in a world without [the stalled US act] SOPA and without ACTA. Now we need to find solutions to make the internet a place of freedom, openness, and innovation fit for all citizens, not just for the techno avant-garde,” Kroes continued.

It was not many thousands. It was millions.  from many countries.   Several governments are going to be seriously angry at the ending of ACTA.   Soft power in the hands of people.  Do I hear democracy by citizens rather than democracy by vested interests?

 

Hollande’s cultural challenge

If Francois Hollande wins the French presidency then a major cultural challenge has been set for him.  With nearly one in five French voters expressing a preference for a racist party, and the (hopefully) outgoing president making statements which are not out of place at a le Pen rally,  France really has to get to grips with its attitude to racism.

Something is clearly wrong.  It will mean changes to current practices, in employment, in all sectors.  Current policies have clearly failed.      A President Hollande will need to mobilise a changed cultural sector to help in the anti-racism programme.  Changed?  Yes.    How open is the cultural sector, from museums, theatres, orchestras, to independent arts organisations and groups to a multi-cultural programme.   Audience extension and development.  An interesting take on the Musee de Quai Branly for example is here.  Personally I loved the architecture but really disliked the approach taken in the exhibits, as did the author.

The report in Germany on the future of museums makes an interesting point.  Ignore the headline grabbing comment about closing half the museums and focus on the comment about the need to engage closer with the tax paying public.

In addition, he argues, cultural institutions should be organised differently and [be given] more detailed targets, not only in regard to visitor numbers, but also guidelines about where visitors should come from and what age groups in particular should be attracted to the museums.

This is not only a domestic issue.  France’s soft power and cultural attraction is weakened with such a growing vote for the extreme right.   And if the right win in the second round?

 

 

More Europe? More Europeans

With austerity and unemployment rising across most of Europe now is certainly the time for more Europe.  Comments by candidate Sarkozy, seeking the racist vote were quite frankly appalling for a President or any politician seeking high office.   (“They must know which side of the Mediterraean they live in”).

I make no concessions to this view.  The closer, and to adopt a Chinese buzz word in its most progressive meaning, harmonious Europe we have the better for everyone.  It is not just a case for eurozone countries to work together or closing down out-of-date tax loopholes between countries. We need to move to a more positive approach to Europeanness at the personal level. For far too long the EU has focused on the corporate and national.  In the next period.. and starting now not waiting for the 2014-20  “Europe 2020” agenda the priority must be to bring Europeans together.

“Unity in Diversity” is being abused to mean “my diversity is paramount” as nationalism and regionalism take precedence. It is no use arguing for More Europe if the target audience, the participants are the already cosmopolitan members of European society.   At the same time I think it is useless to promote some ideal “European Culture”: a favoured viewpoint of an intellectual elite.

As a starting point I recommend this publication from the Council of Europe:  “A Handbook on Tolerance and Cultural Diversity in Europe”.   The European Year of Citizens in 2013 has a fundamental political task in taking head on politicians at local, regional and national level, the commission and civil society.

2012: A European clash of civilisations?

It’s the time of year for forecasting.  What do you expect. or hope, will happen in 2012?  The European Council for Foreign Relations puts forward  Ten Trends for 2012.    Most are reasonably predictable and safe political points (the standard positioning of the ECFR) but it leads with a very challenging point for those interested in culture in Europe: “the European Clash of Civilisations”.

Although the real cause of the crisis is the structural flaw of designing a single currency without a common treasury, Northern Europeans have tended to explain the euro’s problems as a clash between a fiscally-responsible north and an irresponsible south. Southern countries, on the other hand, feel betrayed by what they see as the limited and conditional solidarity of the north – which they see as part of the problem. They feel they have contributed to Germany’s success during the last decade by buying German exports such as cars. France, meanwhile, is caught in the middle – the equivalent of what Huntington called a ‘torn country’ (like Turkey in the conflict between the West and Islam). It wants to be part of the north – which is where power is shifting – but finds itself in danger of becoming part of the south.
The facts do not always support this cultural reading of the crisis – for example it was the rule-worshipping Germans that broke the Stability and Growth Pact, while the Spanish abided by its provisions – however, like Huntington’s original thesis, it risks becoming self-fulfilling, leading to solutions which may not make sense in economic terms – such as simultaneous austerity by all, which Keynesians argue leads to stagnation.

In the last decade there are have more conferences, papers and seminars on “what is European identity; what is European culture.”.   How effective have they been?  Did any of them come to terms with the deep culture of European citizens?  Now is the time for some serious re-thinking and actions with the whole European project under threat.

So an invitation to those interested and active in European culture: what do you see in 2012?  Has the cultural sector any role in averting a cultural divide in Europe?  Does it remain on the sidelines and content within its own audience and production?    Are there any ideas for the Year of European Citizens. Or will 2013 be too late?

Should citizens take the lead in the Year of Citizens?

The European Commission has proposed 2013 to be the “European Year of Citizens”.    Its aims, sorry, challenges, are to:

  • raise citizens’ awareness of their right to reside freely within the European Union and of how they can benefit from EU rights and policies;
  • stimulate citizens’ active participation in EU policy-making;
  • build debate about the impact and potential of the right to free movement, especially on strengthening cohesion and people’s mutual understanding of one another.

Now most of these “Years” seek raise awareness of  an issue.  The concept is favoured by UNESCO, Council of Europe, various UN agencies as well as the EU.   One major weakness is that very few of the promoters put any money behind them; they expect others to spend their own money to deliver the results.   I haven’t seen any serious long-term evaluation of the years but they seem to be liked by officials and politicians.

The concept of European citizenship is important and in my view a Good Thing. Indeed if we are to survive the eurocrisis over the next few years then a greater shared sense of community amongst voters is essential. We can no longer continue to live in a Europe with its own variation of the Clash of Civilisations.

So how can we be better European citizens and what can the powers that be do?  Here are five ideas:

*  EU citizens living in other EU countries should be allowed to vote in the national elections as well as local and regional. No taxations without representation worked in a country two hundred or so years ago.  Voting is not the end of the world but it indicates a degree of equality and of belonging.

*  If you have a bank account in one EU country then you should be able to able an account in another automatically. No more Catch-22s when moving within the EU.

*  Ministries of Foreign Affairs should be renamed European and Foreign Ministries (some, Austria have done this). Again to demonstrate that being European is not being foreign.

*  The next elections for the European Parliament should be contested in the name of the political groupings in the Parliament with a single EU wide manifesto  and not by domestic political parties.  Citizens should vote for the various presidents directly, of Council and Commission.

* No discrimination in various tax and social security systems between EU citizens and domestic citizens.

There will be more.. please add them

A call for your support for the Free Theatre of Belarus

The Free Theatre of Belarus is no ordinary theatre.  You can read about it  here.  Time Out calls it the “bravest theatre in Europe”.  It is supported by Kevin Spacey, Tom Stoppard, Jude Law, Index on Censorship and many others.  Natalia Kaliada gave the most powerful speech at this years European Culture Forum in Brussels

It now seeks your support.  It’s time to give.

http://www.sponsume.com/project/belarus-free-theatre