Culture in Europe’s external relations. Interview with Walter Zampieri, Andrew Murray & Koen Verlaeckt.

Flanders Arts Institute invited three privileged witnesses from the Flemish and European level to discuss civil society, active citizenship, transnational realities and intercultural dialogue. Walter Zampieri is head of the Cultural Policy Unit of the Directorate General for Education and Culture of the European Commission. Andrew Murray is director of the EUNIC Global Office, EUNIC being the EU National Institutes for Culture. Koen Verlaeckt is the secretary-general of the Flanders Department of Foreign Affairs. He is also the current President of the EUNIC Global Office. The interview was conducted by Dirk De Wit, coordinator for International Relations at Flanders Arts Institute, and edited by Karl van den Broeck (BOZAR).

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Artists have been travelling from one country to the other since the beginning of civilization. Cultural exchanges may be very old, but international collaboration has only become common practice since globalization started some 30 years ago. This evolution is not neutral. What about Western dominance, the unequal access to the means of production and distribution, the precarious situation of individual artists, and the trend whereby art becomes a commodity in a commercial environment and gets alienated from society?

All these questions also surface in discussions with European and national policymakers who shape cultural policy in the member states, the EU and in the relation to other regions of the world. Europe is first and foremost an economic project and cultural policy is shifting towards the creative industries, a sector that has become very important in terms of employment. Europe challenges North America and Asia which used to dominate this sector. Meanwhile, Europe is also working on a new European project and this reflection also stimulates the debate on European cultural policy.

Culture is the conversation that underpins the European public space. We often complain that there is no such European public space, but if you look at the cultural section of your newspaper, you realize that it does exist. It has always existed.


The British Council published a policy note in 2014 titled Culture Matters: Why culture should be at the heart of future public policy. The Belgian sociologist Pascal Gielen compiled a book titled No Culture, no Europe. Where are we today in the rethinking of the European project? Is culture something peripheral? Or is it the heart of the European project? Mr Zampieri, what is the current status of these intentions towards bringing culture to the heart of the European project?

Walter Zampieri (WZ): Eleven years ago the EU started dealing with culture in terms of policy. There was more optimism then. Before the crisis we probably thought that things would come automatically. Culture was considered more as a luxury. The priorities were ‘hard’ projects in the economic field. I think today there is an awareness that there are also cultural divides that need to be tackled. And you can only tackle them in an indirect way, in the long term and through culture.

The Gothenburg communication after the Summit of November 2017 (1) stressed the importance of strengthening European identity through education and culture. That was very important because it was the first time that we said very clearly that culture is an important element for active citizenship, European integration, identity and for the sense of being part of a community. We value our diversity, which remains essential to the European project. But diversity should set ourselves apart from each other.

There is still a lot of work to be done, especially to promote the circulation of works of art and of artists and cultural workers. The Berlin Philharmoniker will always tour Europe and the world. But for less famous artists it remains very difficult to be part of the transnational conversation that is the essence of culture.

Culture is the conversation that underpins the European public space. We often complain that there is no such European public space, but if you look at the cultural section of your newspaper, you realize that it does exist. It has always existed.

In Gothenburg we signed our ‘contract’ for cooperation at EU level in cultural matters. And of course, the international dimension, our relations with other countries and regions, is also a shared ownership with the member states.

Does that mean that the budget for culture will go up?

WZ: The budget for culture is not only Creative Europe (1.46 billion euros). If you include the Structural Funds, we are already at around 1 per cent of the European budget. And that is what the UN asks.

Even when it comes to Brexit, I want to be optimistic. I am not giving up hope that the UK might continue to participate in cultural exchanges. It would be very odd if the UK should leave the education and culture programmes altogether.

Today we have a strategic approach to EU international cultural relations but we do not yet have a strategy. We need an agreement between the member states, the European institutions and the cultural sector about how to implement this approach.


Let us turn to the Flemish government. Mr Verlaeckt, we have seen a shift in policy that stresses the importance of ‘nation branding’ and the role of culture in civil society.

Koen Verlaeckt (KV): I think there are basically three dimensions. There is international cultural policy. That’s the policy which is being set up by the Ministry of Culture in the Flemish government and that is basically about internationalizing the priorities of the domestic cultural policy. There is an overlap with the other dimensions where Foreign Affairs is more in the driver’s seat.

The second dimension is about nation branding. This is the ‘old school’ approach where culture and foreign affairs meet. I still remember the time when Luc Van den Brande was Minister-President of Flanders (1992–1999). He appointed Cultural Ambassadors with big chunks of money. After Van den Brande left office, the money was transferred to the Ministry of Culture and so the whole idea of culture as an instrument for nation branding disappeared from the political spotlight.

The third dimension is where we try to – and I know this is dangerous – instrumentalize culture. We use it to intensify our bilateral ties with other countries. If you want to foster economic ties with the US and you have a business delegation visiting the country, you create added value if you can invite them to a concert afterwards.

Then there is culture in civil society. I would like to emphasize the role of EUNIC in this regard. In December 2016, the conference European Angst (2) took place at BOZAR. It was one of the first events with big visibility, where the role that culture can play in the societal debate was really put centre stage.

But there is also the capacity-building programme the Flemish government put in place in the 1990s. We paid a lot of attention to the ‘new’ member states (Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States, etc.). Our government invested 3 to 4 million euros annually in a programme that was aimed at capacity building, while at the same time opening up a dialogue. We also invested in our relations with Ukraine. One of the messages that I will always cherish is that almost the only way for Russians and Ukrainians to keep talking to each other is through joint cultural exchanges. That remains the only lifeline for them.

Andrew Murray (AM): The 1990s were very important. I was working for the British Council in Romania and Poland in that period. The British Government set up the UK Know How Fund to support the accession process and as part of that process to help build an independent cultural sector. This was an important shared objective and was part of a carefully thought-through strategy.
Today we have a strategic approach to EU international cultural relations but we do not yet have a strategy. We need an agreement between the member states, the European institutions and the cultural sector about how to implement this approach. The primary goal is promoting mutual understanding and trust between people.

We also need an inclusive definition of culture. It is about more than the arts. It is also about education, science, sport, tourism and cultural heritage.
At this point we are trying to work out what the roles and responsibilities should be of these three actors and how they can pool their resources.

A big problem is that culture and education are competences of the member states. How can we go back to the spirit of the 1990s when we had the ambition to help build and strengthen an independent cultural sector with our partner countries?

In countries like Morocco and Tunisia the EU partners are starting to understand that we have a common purpose: the building up of an independent cultural sector. The paradox is that the members of EUNIC are working together more closely outside Europe.


How does EUNIC deal with countries that promote nationalism? Either the independent cultural sector in these countries has been taken over by governments or else it faces serious budget cuts.

AM: We can put forward the arguments for culture in its wider sense and its importance for the European project. Most individual member states support this view.
Questions often arise when we try to define what European values are. Values are a really difficult concept to define and elaborate. Often, they are defined in a prescriptive way, and they are used to divide people rather than to build bridges. I would rather use values to describe what people value themselves. If you prescribe values to promote a sense of identity, you will risk not only building walls between Europeans, but also between Europeans and the rest of the world.

WZ: What are the European values? They are listed in the Treaty. I like to think in terms of ‘framework values’, as proposed by political philosopher John Rawls: all we need to agree on for democracy to function is a ‘framework’. If you look at the values that we have in the European Treaty, we are talking about human rights, rule of law, democracy, non-discrimination, gender equality. These are framework values that allow a free conversation to take place, but they do not dictate anything about the content or even the tone of that conversation. But you have to comply with that framework, when the Commission believes that that is not the case, and there have been recent cases, in Poland and Hungary – action is taken to try to redress the situation.

Our framework values make us more credible partners worldwide. We don’t put forward French values or German values. We promote European values. This is also an opportunity for the member states. Nation branding is for the member states, my job is rather to look for the added value of the EU. But nation states can also brand themselves as countries that are responsible and important players in Europe. In that case it makes sense to work with the EU.

You mentioned the cultural public space. That is a complex concept in an age when migration is becoming very important. Migrants want to identify with the culture they are living in, but they stay in contact with the culture of their country of origin. How do you deal with this complexity?

WZ: It’s a large-scale experiment that is taking place before our eyes. Never in history has it happened so quickly and so widely. On the other hand, migration is not an entirely new phenomenon. I’m not sure that keeping ties with your community in the ‘old country’ really hinders integration. Look at the experiences of the Chinese and Italian communities in Europe and the US: they kept their ties with their countries of origin, but they also identify with the country they live in.

In the US a lot of people said that Hispanics would not learn English because they were in constant contact with Latin-American media. But in reality, we have seen that they do learn English. The fact that you have access to your own culture does not mean that you are not ready to integrate in a new one on the condition that it is interesting and appealing and that it doesn’t refuse you. And I think that is the key point. If you refuse them, they will stay within the boundaries of their own communities. If we multiply the possibilities of exchange, that will not happen. I think the final result will be better.

The University of Antwerp conducted a study that showed that people from migrant communities feel more comfortable identifying with Europe than with Belgium or Flanders. An opportunity for Europe?

WZ: With all the caution that we need to have, we can be confident about the attractiveness of Europe.

AM: As long as we do not call ourselves ‘a cultural superpower’.

Mr Verlaeckt, how does Flanders deal with this ‘hybridization’ or ‘transnationalism’?

KV: In Flanders we are not dealing directly with these issues because there is the division of competences between us and the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the colleagues dealing with asylum and migration procedures. At the Flemish level, it’s more about integration policy, which doesn’t fall within the competences of my own ministry.

On the policy level, we see more emphasis on defending the interests of our own local population. The basic rhetoric you keep hearing in discussions about integration policy in Flanders or in Belgium is: “We fully respect the culture of people arriving in our country but they have to comply with our own values.”

This brings us back to the same problem. What are our own values? The typical European ‘between-brackets values’ of the Enlightenment.

Recently an Iranian human rights activist, Darya Safa, joined the political party N-VA. It is a step in the right direction to hear a woman who fled Iran because of the problems she had with the regime defending the values of the Enlightenment.

Our government is also trying to reach out to a number of diaspora communities. There is the Darna project (formerly known as Darkom). It used to be a house for Moroccan-Flemish cultural relations in the heart of Brussels. It has been replaced by a much lighter and more flexible programme of cultural activities. But we must realize that countries like Morocco are really putting in place a very explicit diaspora policy which is not so neutral. There is always a risk of a hidden agenda.

In countries like Hungary and Poland we make sure that we keep our differences out of the government-to-government interaction. We only put neutral topics on the agenda: economic or academic cooperation. Cultural cooperation is one of the chapters but in a lighter dimension: the exchange of some dancers, some music festivals.

What we are trying to add as a complement to this government-to-government dialogue is to invest directly in the civil society. We do that under the radar.

The embassies of these countries are instructed to focus on the softer areas of cooperation. They just pretend that nothing is wrong, which I find pretty uncomfortable.

Do you think it’s possible to work under the radar, to work on the two levels?

KV: Yes, we are doing it in some countries, and we try to combine both. I think the most stupid thing to do is to close down your channels of communication with the government. You should not antagonize them. You have to use the double approach.

AM: There is a place for traditional cultural diplomacy. For example, in Iran at the moment, you can only operate through embassies. We have to use the tools available for us in a certain context. So, in Iran, you have to work through embassies, and we have a EUNIC Cluster in Tehran that is working with local cultural operators.

In 2009 I was Director of the the British Council’s operations in Iran.  The Iranian authorities forced the closure of the office a year before they burned down the British Embassy. They regarded our cultural work as a potentially greater threat to the regime than the work of the diplomats.  One of the priorities of the Iranian authorities at the moment is cultural heritage and its potential to grow their tourism sector, partly because they need foreign currency but also because they want to start to open up Iran to the benefits that could be gained from encouraging more tourists to visit their splendid cultural sites. EUNIC, including the British Council, is ready and willing to help them achieve that.

There is a variety of different approaches available for practitioners of cultural diplomacy and cultural relations: from traditional nation branding to the ‘arm’s length’ approach, where you basically enable cultural operators to work together and operate without interference from their governments.

EUNIC is working in Rabat (Morocco) with several European cultural institutes, including the Goethe Institute, Institut Français, Cervantes and others who are members of a EUNIC collaborative ‘cluster’. On the other hand, we have organizations like Darna that work with Moroccan communities in Brussels. How can the two relate?

AM: We are not making enough use of these connections between civil societies in the EU and the Southern Neighbourhood. The work that Kunstenpunt is doing by mapping those connections between Morocco and Flanders is very interesting for us. We lack data and evidence. So, at the moment, I think EUNIC is still learning how to work with civil society organizations. It’s a very young organization, only ten years old. It is composed of diverse members ranging from ministries to arm’s-length institutes. They are still learning how to work together. I think the EU institutions can help us with that, as a catalyst.

In countries like Morocco and Tunisia the EU partners are starting to understand that we have a common purpose: the building up of an independent cultural sector. The paradox is that the members of EUNIC are working together more closely outside Europe. We have a clear common purpose there that we often don’t see when we work in the EU.

We should explain the concept of cultural diplomacy to the people who will be standing for election to the European Parliament next year. Efforts could be made to make sure that this concept finds its way in the party programmes. That’s really an urgent task because those programmes are being written as we speak.


Mr Zampieri, recently the Commission put in place an extra fund for Tunisia. The money is distributed to Tunisian applicants through the EUNIC Cluster in Tunisia. What are the possibilities of this new fund?

WZ: For us this is a long-term project. We need to see what the added value of the EU is. We can serve as a platform for national cultural institutions and cultural operators from Europe.

The cultural world lacks multipliers. If you look at education policy, you have universities that all pursue the same mission. In the cultural world, it’s not so easy to identify good, reliable, effective multipliers. We think that national cultural institutes can do a very good job in that respect. That’s why we want to work with them.

Tunisia is an experiment. What we lack are the instruments to do something like that on a bigger scale. Creative Europe is limited. We can only work in Europe and the neighbouring countries. Of course, there are more resources in other DGs like DEVCO (Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development) and DG NEAR (Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations), but this money is not earmarked for cultural exchanges. That is the problem you encounter if you want to fund activities in certain countries: you can find that DG DEVCO can finance activities over there, you can finance activities here, but it is impossible to find a project that pulls the two together.

We hear that in Tunisia some people are afraid of the negative perception that the money is again managed by the former colonizing countries.

WZ: As for post-colonialism, that is who we are, that is our history. We can only be open and transparent about it. And it is probably better to go there as Europeans than as Brits, Italians or French people.

AM: Let’s look at this from a different perspective. If your goal is to support an independent cultural sector in Morocco or Tunisia or anywhere else in the MENA region [Middle East and North Africa, KvdB], the governments of those states, might not necessarily want that, because the independent cultural sector could be critical of the government. If you were to give the money directly to the government, it may not be used for that purpose, so you need to find some intermediary. And at the moment, that is the experiment. We are looking at European cultural institutes to work as an intermediary between the cultural sector and the government. We are doing the same in Ukraine.  By channelling small grants, funded by the EU, through the cultural institutes the cultural sector can grow and learn how to support itself.

There is also the private sector. In the MENA region, you have foundations like the Kamel Lazaar Foundation in Tunis that do a lot of education and art archiving. They do it because the government does not. Is there a way to cooperate?

KV: They could partner with the local EUNIC Cluster. There should be no problem.

AM: A good example is the Anna Lindh Foundation (ALF) that gets some funding from the EU. We are working with Anna Lindh in our cluster in Athens, where the head of EUNIC is also the head of ALF.

WZ: There is also a parallel with development aid where you have people giving money not to the dictators but to people on the ground, but there the UN is a very identifiable unity. You know, we work with the UN. If someone in Morocco gets money from EUNIC, he does not know this money is coming from Europe. If we want to be more visible, we should make sure that people in these countries identify the aid as coming from Europe. It would lead to better perception of what we are doing there. I can understand that you want to keep a very low profile in some countries, but the UN is not afraid to work – openly – in the most horrible dictatorships.

AM: We have to remember that most of the funding for cultural diplomacy and cultural relations is spent by member states. The key challenge is for member states to reallocate some of that bilateral funding to multilateral funding to support European cultural relations. This is what is  happening in Tunisia and it proves that with this little bit of money we can achieve a lot. We can achieve even more if we want to start to use some of the bilateral funding which is mainly used for traditional cultural diplomacy. It is important to get foreign affairs, culture and development ministries in member states to work together. The Dutch are a good example, since they have a more integrated approach than most member states.

Can EUNIC Clusters in Western countries learn from EUNIC Clusters in Rabat, Tunisia or Turkey? They are doing fantastic work collaborating in Turkey now.

AM: We have 40 clusters inside the EU and about 70 outside the EU. Over the past few years, we have focused more on outside the EU. What should our priority be inside the EU? The Presidents of our EU Clusters have agreed it should be social inclusion. Some clusters are also tackling emerging challenges like populism and nationalism. Here in Brussels, the European Angst conference started to think about how we can respond to that challenge.

WZ: We want to do more for the intra-European mobility of artists and cultural professionals. We will never have the money Erasmus has. On the other hand, there are lots of small-scale activities in member states, also thanks to cities and cultural institutions.

KV: Look at the Tunis example. The programme is being delivered by a local cluster consisting of those organizations that are on the ground. The question is: how can EUNIC members such as Flanders and the Netherlands benefit from these experiences? I think it could also help to counter this idea that ‘the old colonial masters are back’.

If my Ministry of Culture or my Ministry of Foreign affairs would see that this dialogue is meaningful for us, they would be willing to find money. You have to sell the message to your politicians.

If you just want to sell the message about cultural cooperation or nation branding, they will say that it is not essential in ‘these difficult economic times’. It all changes when you say that you are investing in cultural dialogue and an independent cultural sector in Morocco to help us formulate answers to the problem of foreign fighters. The Moroccan government wants to be our first ally in North Africa. They say they can help us. We have problems with education and the training of imams in our local mosques. They can help us find a solution. And it is about selling that message.

After the last bomb explosion in Omagh in Northern Ireland, organizations asked the government for money to help the victims and their families. They got peanuts. Then they said they wanted to work with universities to conduct a study about the economic impact of trauma. Suddenly all the ministries were interested. To a certain extent, it is about selling the message. And cultural diplomacy sounds nice, but if you can’t give the extra content, it will always be extremely difficult to find resources.

AM: We have not yet found a set of indicators to evaluate the impact of funding culture so that we can convince finance ministers to spend more on culture.

KV: Efforts should be made to try and measure the impact. Even if the outcome is only raw statistics. We did something with the Flemish University Council. We conducted a study about the impact of universities on Flemish society. The outcome of the study was that, for every euro invested, there is an outcome of 6 euro. And that is a very conservative guess.

We should explain the concept of cultural diplomacy to the people who will be standing for election to the European Parliament next year. Efforts could be made to make sure that this concept finds its way in the party programmes. That’s really an urgent task because those programmes are being written as we speak.

What could help, for example, is to take ministers or other political dignitaries on a site visit to one of those projects. I have seen it with my own Minister-President, Geert Bourgeois. We are running a development cooperation programme with South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique. Every time, questions are being asked about whether these investments make sense. We decided to take them on a 12-day field trip. And the skies cleared immediately. He was able to witness first-hand what kind of work we are doing, what our added value is in the field. Maybe you should invite all European Ministers of Culture to Tunis.

How important is it to broaden the definition of arts and culture?

AM: It is gradually being broadened. For example, the European Commission has funded the European Year of Cultural Heritage to the tune of eight million euros. I am impressed with how the programme was put together for the Year of Cultural Heritage. Their ambition is to be applauded. And their vision is about the future, not about the past. Cultural heritage is about how to build a better future.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of the year. What will be the legacy? What has been the return on investment?

Je leest: Culture in Europe’s external relations. Interview with Walter Zampieri, Andrew Murray & Koen Verlaeckt.