Towards a common cultural sphere between the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the European Union (EU)

A transnational cultural sphere
We live in an age of great diversity, driven by migration and by global transactions in the economic and cultural spheres.

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Relations between places are usually loaded with people’s histories. The histories of migrants who, regardless of their origins, have always kept regular contact with their home countries. The histories of host countries and of migrants for whom migration generates questions about identity, belonging, integration, nationalism, history and cross-border exchanges. Often, these histories are colonial in origin and nature. People’s histories are also affected by political issues on a transnational level. However, they are being explored and unravelled by artists, writers and citizens who are committed to understanding themselves and the places they live in or come from, and also to exploring possible futures.

Today’s ‘here’ and ‘there’ are connected in the form of complex relations between specific localities and individual stories that are often based on hundreds of years of shared history. In light of these relations, we can see ‘identity’ as something that is more plural than fixed.

Today’s ‘here’ and ‘there’ are closely interrelated – not in the form of corporate bubbles made up of places that look the same the world over, nor in the form of international mobility, at least when conceived as the ability to live and work in different places in the world like the executives of multinational corporations.

Rather, today’s ‘here’ and ‘there’ are connected in the form of complex relations between specific localities and individual stories that are often based on hundreds of years of shared history. In light of these relations, we can see ‘identity’ as something that is more plural than fixed.

Culture plays a crucial role in the continuous process of making these complexities visible and in the ongoing negotiation of meanings and values between citizens and localities. The notion of a ‘transnational cultural sphere’ must therefore be understood in the following terms:

  • As an open notion, available to citizens, politicians, artists, mediators and academics;
  • As a space that is about negotiating different meanings and values, and not about exporting certain values (e.g. European values) nor about exporting globally transportable products;
  • As a space of trust, in which there is room for both research and a two-way dialogue, but also for risk and misunderstandings;
  • As an independent sphere available to citizens that is able to deal with differences as well as with unequal access to sources and channels of production and distribution in the process of setting up mechanisms of solidarity.

The global art world creates rather the opposite: global bubbles and similar audiences worldwide which ignore such a sphere of negotiation between localities and histories.

Citizens of Western countries have increasingly become aware of the commodification of art and culture and of the exclusionary nature of the art market and global peer networks in the arts. On the other hand, art and culture are also under pressure because of budget cuts and the rise of nationalism. More and more artists and organisations are reconnecting with civil society and are undergoing processes of de-institutionalisation (putting both artists and citizens at the heart of artistic work) and decolonisation (by dealing with cultural diversity in their local environments). They are asking: ‘Is our perspective open enough to appreciate talent and to engage in the creation of meanings that are different from the (Western) common sense and canon?’ These questions on identity and diversity within Europe are tied to the relations between the EU and neighbouring countries. This process of debunking by critical citizens, artists and academics from Europe and from countries to the East and to the South has been going on for decades. It includes the need to re-examine the regions’ shared history – a history that includes occupation and colonialism and also different waves of migration – as well as the need to rediscover how art and culture can help societies to deal collectively with the complex issues of our times, such as identity and meaning. It reveals common concerns between the EU and MENA and many things to learn from each other. Joachim Ben Yakoub (Middle East And North Africa Research Group, Ghent University), explores ‘here’ and ‘there’ in his essay ‘The Dream Collaboration’, taking the work of artists Selma and Sofiane Ouissi and the Dream City Festival as a starting point.

The understanding of this transnational cultural sphere also affects the EU and its external relations policy (relations of the EU towards third countries around the world). These relations with neighbouring countries are guided by a set of (European) values. When they are considered superior, they could have an opposite effect and could confirm the separations and divisions rather than help to build a common cultural sphere. These values should rather be the starting points for a dialogue. Also, the idea of homogeneous but different national cultures increasingly working together within the EU, based on internal subsidiarity, has been debunked as a construct that conceals both minorities within each member state as well as decades of exchange, influences, occupation and war within the EU and with its neighbouring countries. Often, Europe considers itself as a single cultural market gathering players from different nation states working on the same level. This is not the case.

How do we shape this common cultural space between the EU and MENA?

  • It is important to consider the cultural values of dialogue, reciprocity and co-creation in this common space, and to hold national, geopolitical and economic agendas at arm’s length. In other words, we should investigate how culture can nourish these agendas of diplomacy and economy rather than the other way around.
  • Work from specific local contexts – ‘here’ (e.g. Brussels) or ‘there’ (e.g. Casablanca) – to build up relations. This implies supporting artists and organisations that are investing in their histories and localities and that are interconnected locally and internationally.
  • Work with artists, organisations, programmers and curators who are already engaged in creating those connections between localities and who are often people with a migrant background or organisations that have a legacy of collaboration and exchange in the EU and MENA cultural sector.
  • The roles of EU delegations, cultural institutions and intermediary organisations here and there are of great importance as long as they work from an understanding of their own local context (e.g. MENA delegations in the EU and vice versa).
  • Work with private foundations that support the role of art and culture in civil society.
  • Work in dialogue and co-creation with ministries and governments that understand the dynamics of civil society or that work to foster that understanding.

It is important to bring this experience of horizontal cultural relations between the EU and MENA, as well as the experience of negotiating between very specific and different localities, back to Europe.

When it comes to applying for EU funding, for example, organisations from Eastern and Southern European countries are involved, but generally as partners. This participation is, however, taking place under the same rules and conditions imposed on the EU-based organisations, like the obligation to contribute to the budget, etc. This reality is challenging for many third-country organisations. Few of them have succeeded in getting EU funding as project leaders.

The European policy instruments for culture focus on themes that are based on economic interests like labour and competition with creative industries from other continents (e.g. implementing digital technologies, focusing on audiences, capacity-building). Meanwhile, there is still much work to be done to create this common cultural sphere on a European level, the hope being that this sphere will shape civil society.

What would a common cultural space between the EU and MENA look like? How would it work? What should be avoided?

Let us explore these questions through two examples:

  1. First example:

Since its opening in 2014, the new Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat has organised a Picasso retrospective, a Giacometti retrospective and, most recently, an exhibition of ‘masterpieces’ from the Banco de España. The museum aims to position itself as a serious player in the global museum world. But what is the significance of showcasing masterpieces by European artists, curated by French institutions such as the Picasso Museum and the Giacometti Foundation, in Morocco, even when we know that this choice is motivated by a recognition of the influence of North African culture on those artists’ work?

Coverbeeld A Prior 22 (2011), Photo by Sander Buyck

The exhibition Face à Picasso was curated by the Picasso Museum in Paris. It was organised in Rabat on much the same terms as the other exhibitions the Picasso Museum exports to museums around the world: on the basis of vertical historical knowledge, without any research into what Picasso could mean to Moroccan or North African culture today, or into what this research and experience could add to the Picasso Museum’s knowledge of Picasso.

What is the role of the Institut français in cases such as this one? Is it defending the interests of the French state and its political and economic position in Morocco and MENA, namely by showcasing its national culture through its rayonnement (‘positive impact’) policy and setting up capacity-building processes in conservation and exhibiting from Paris to Rabat? Or would it be possible for the Institut français in Morocco, with its knowledge of the local context, to facilitate mutual learning and to invite both museums not only to showcase, but also to work together on the questions that the project provokes. These include but are not limited to: what does Picasso mean for Morocco? How could the Picasso museum benefit from these new perspectives? France and Morocco have hundreds of years of history in common, and many cultural exchanges are taking place today between artists living and working in Morocco and France. How could the Mohammed VI Museum and the Picasso Museum co-create an exhibition on Picasso? Such a project could involve an exhibition but also a contemporary creation component, the result of which could be shown in both capitals.

The project Picasso in Palestine, organised by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (the Netherlands) and the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in 2010, is a good example of how institutions can work horizontally, valuing different perspectives equally. Both institutions decided to work together on the basis of a loan request by artistic director Khaled Hourani of IAAP for Picasso’s Buste de Femme (1943). Chosen by the students of the academy, the work is an outstanding example of Picasso’s expressionist period, in which he created works to articulate his response to the Spanish Civil War.

One of the most pertinent questions is how a European art museum plays a meaningful role in helping to understand our global condition with all its internal contradictions.

What started as a regular loan agreement became a wide-ranging conversation on cultural rights and struggles in other places and times, but also on the process of preparation, shipping and display in Ramallah. International speakers were invited to respond to the artistic, political and social implications surrounding the exhibition and the process of taking it to Ramallah. This initiative was also designed to further cultural exchange between European and Middle Eastern institutions in general.

Charles Esche, the director of the Van Abbemuseum, said: ‘Picasso in Palestine is part of a wider development in which a typical modern art collection tries to come to terms with the social and cultural changes taking place around us. One of the most pertinent questions is how a European art museum plays a meaningful role in helping to understand our global condition with all its internal contradictions. I believe we are also extending the potential of the collection through this action. Our Picasso will be changed by its journey to Ramallah, it will take on extra meaning and the story will remain part of the history of the painting from this moment on. It feels like we are constructing new histories with such a project as well as preserving old ones.’

On the other side, Khaled Hourani, the artistic director of IAAP, said: ‘Picasso in Palestine is an art project that aims to probe mechanisms, procedures, obstacles and requirements in getting a painting of this kind to Palestine. By doing so it sheds light on the contemporary reality of Palestine and gives the art project the power of the impossible. Picasso in Palestine is about institutions in different locations, the value and funding of art, and human relations and the media. The adventure starts when the artwork leaves for Palestine but does not necessarily end when it safely arrives back home.’

Sattelite Marrakesh

  1. Second example:

Between 21 and 24 September 2017, thirty-five professionals in contemporary dance and education from Europe and MENA gathered in Marrakech to discuss the mission and programme of the future Dance High School Nafass, an academy for dance professionals in Morocco and the region. The participants insisted on the importance of building the school on the basis of the needs and the potential of the local context rather than inviting an existing European school to open a branch in MENA or gathering the best professionals from all over the world in Marrakech. This initiative would also complement and enrich the existing movement of artistic scenes (talents) from MENA to the dance schools in Europe, which are open to international talent and have scholarships for those in need.

This school project is a result of 13 years of a relevant contemporary dance festival and the ESAV school (Ecole supérieure des arts visuels), both implemented in Marrakech, and initiated and generated by local artists and cultural operators. Plus, a real dynamics and strong meeting point for artistic scene in Morocco in performing arts and visual arts. The school caters to emerging talent from MENA who can work and develop their own specific notions of body and gesture while keeping strong relations with the dance scene in Europe.

Participants discussed questions like the role that art practitioners play in Moroccan society today, their educational paths, the skills they should acquire and how and when, how to offer Moroccan creators an opportunity to reach the international scene, and the recognition artists receive in Morocco and MENA.

This international workshop was organised by On Marche Association (Marrakech) and IETM (International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts). Cultural institutions that facilitate international connections in both directions could follow up on this work. This was actually one of the new academy’s main requests. Responding to it will pave the way for an enquiry into what we can learn from contemporary dance in the MENA region.

Re-interrogating the cultural export approach could nurture reflections on the bilateral relations between countries and regions. It could also change the way foreign policy views and approaches culture, as well as the role institutions can play through investment in cultural dialogue and cultural initiatives that promote mutual understanding.

Some insights into the cultural relations between Flanders and MENA, and into the role of both the Flanders Arts Institute and our Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs

National institutes for culture

When it comes to foreign policy, apart from the Belgian Embassy which has no cultural capacity, culture is the competence of the language-based communities: Flanders and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. Wallonie-Bruxelles International supports cooperations such as Daba Maroc, or Masarat, organised by Les Halles (Brussels) where Fabienne Verstraeten and Nedjma H.benchelabi were the key actors in curating the season. In these examples, it was important to voice artists and writers from the MENA to facilitate understanding and create dialogue in Europe. Flanders has no diplomatic or cultural representation in Morocco, nor in the MENA region in general, but explores cultural cooperation differently.

When it comes to representation of MENA in Belgium, there is an independent ‘Maison de la culture Arabe’ in Brussels (which does not receive support from the Moroccan government). There is also Darna, the official cultural centre for Flemish-Moroccan collaboration (supported by the Flanders Ministry of Culture and the Moroccan Ministry of the Diaspora Living Abroad).

Darna has recently undergone significant changes. They closed their venue, a space in which they used to organise workshops and to host music and performing arts events. They also recently changed their artistic policy to become a local liaison office in an effort to make different cultures in Flanders work together, using the format of open calls to support collaborations between artist groups of Moroccan and Flemish background. Darna now uses a bottom-up approach, matching groups that usually hardly work together and with a focus on local collaboration. Darna resists the idea of becoming a showcase for Moroccan culture in Brussels or an excuse for the lack of participation in cultural life by Belgian citizens with roots in MENA.

Artists and cultural organisations working between the EU and MENA

Many artists and cultural organisations work between Flanders and MENA as though they were operating in a single common cultural space.

Saxophonist and composer Luc Mishalle is the artistic director of MET-X, a house of music-makers that stimulates collaboration and organises educational programmes inspired by a range of musical genres and traditions – from brass to folk and from electronic to jazz. His projects are always about community-building, whether they are developed in Brussels neighbourhoods, across Europe or in North or West Africa. They always involve both professional musicians and citizens from all generations. The projects aim to inspire them to make music together.

Describing his experience and approach, Luc Mishalle says: ‘I am interested in Moroccan music because I discovered it with my neighbours in Antwerp. On a journey to Morocco, I was touched by the dynamics, the simplicity, the hardness and the energy in the way people make music there. That shaped my musical life profoundly. In the music of Met-X we try to capture that energy in all our projects. There are always three constants in my projects. We start from projects that are already present in communities here and over there. Secondly, there has never been any logistical support from Flanders with the projects we set up there. And thirdly, it has always been about exchange. If possible, projects were presented both in Morocco and in the Benelux.’

Another key player is Mohammed Ikoubaan, the artistic director of the art centre Moussem in Brussels. Moussem is a nomadic initiative: without their own venue, they work in this common cultural space between MENA and Belgium. They produce work by artists from the Arab world, regardless of their origin or home base, by ‘injecting’ it in existing institutions in Belgium. Moussem therefore contributes to the task of opening up the Western canon for real dialogue, by supervising how these institutions present the work and speak about it.

Moussem works in both MENA and Belgium. They are aware of the constraints of the Arab world context, which all derive from the lack of infrastructure for production and presentation and from the persistence of old structures that make it difficult to create space for new generations. They work with artist-driven structures in MENA and try not to be too dependent on foreign cultural institutions. Moussem resists pressure from both the Arab world and Belgium to put things in boxes and under labels, recognising how often these are based on clichés.

Moussem is also aware of the danger that arises when major institutions in Europe and MENA work together, deciding which big names or usual suspects will be travelling in this common space. This trend presents a threat to artist-driven and independent cultural production. Instead, Moussem defends the principle of solidarity, not only between Europe and MENA, but also between small and large-scale institutions here and there.

In the words of Mohamed Ikoubaan: ‘We believe this common space is not only a mental space where universal themes that we approach differently – such as private and public space, identity, gender, power – can be discussed, but also a physical space in which we move between different countries and where physical encounters can happen.’

On the opposite side of the spectrum from Moussem and its story, we find the recent experience of Philippe Van Cauteren, the director of SMAK, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent. Van Cauteren curated the Iraq pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015, working with artists from Iraq. Following this experience, Van Cauteren was invited by The Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) to create an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris based on their extensive collection of modern and contemporary art from the Arab region. The collection was originally put together to help the intellectual development of knowledge about art from the Arab sphere of influence, among other reasons. Van Cauteren intended to use this invitation to tell a story of different influences and shared histories between East and West, but his efforts were only partly successful, as he was forced to accept the exhibition title chosen by the Institut du Monde Arabe, namely ‘Masterpieces from the History of Modern Art in the Arab World’. Van Cauteren’s resistance to the term ‘masterpieces’ stemmed from the term’s Western origin: in his eyes, the term closes up the artworks and restricts them to ‘being masterpiece[s] with fixed meaning[s].’

Philippe Van Cauteren believes that the way we treat the ‘other’ in Western culture masks the bankruptcy of our supremacy and nourishes Western cultural politics. At SMAK, he believes it is possible to work differently by thinking and working horizontally, with connecting pieces that are all part of one larger totality. He asks: ‘What would happen if we thought and worked horizontally?’

Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi is an Algerian-born, Brussels-based dance curator and producer who works in Europe and MENA with festivals, choreographers and dancers from both regions. From 2014 onwards, she is mainly associate curator of ‘On Marche’ the International Contemporary Dance Festival of Marrakech and for the ‘Arab Art Focus’ at Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF, Cairo).

She is very positive about MENA’s active, self-organised arts scene: she notes that artists and artist-driven initiatives are able to work with different sources of funding from private foundations, local public funding and co-producers while handling low budgets. However precarious the conditions, practitioners are inventive in both their creative and work strategies, she notes.

Benchelabi criticises the tendency to speak about MENA as a homogeneous space, noting that MENA countries – like European countries – are very diverse and poorly interconnected.

Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi believes that we in the West can learn a lot from those practitioners. She observes that they are growing less and less fond of receiving support from European cultural institutions, namely because their formats and themes do not always show a real interest and investment in artistic creation and exchange: “Not only because it’s important to hear the emerging voices from the MENA region in uneasy times, but even more for the relentless search for powerful and actual languages, forms and formats. Many of these artists are building a proper place for themselves, and more important, their artistic proposals are essential components in the shaping of a globalising contemporary culture, pushing the codes of the dominant western culture.”

Furthermore, Benchelabi criticises the tendency to speak about MENA as a homogeneous space, noting that MENA countries – like European countries – are very diverse and poorly interconnected. In her eyes, major efforts will be needed to create a common cultural space between MENA and Europe, where there are at present many divides between the North and the South, the East and the West.

Egyptian-born Tarek Abou El-Fetouh founded the Young Arab Theatre Fund in Brussels, which also received funding from the Ministry of Culture in Flanders, with the aim to support individual artists and independent spaces for the development, production and presentation in theatre, dance, visual arts, film, video and music in the Arab world. In 2002 Young Arab Theatre Fund set up the festival ‘Meeting Points’, which selects artists from different cities in MENA, from which each city makes its own festival programme. Curated by Tarek Abou El-Fetouh from Egypt and Frie Leysen from Belgium, the fifth edition (2007) took place in Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Ramallah, Alexandria, Cairo, El Minia, Tunis and Tangier, and for this edition also in Brussels and Berlin. This edition wanted to contribute to the development of this one cultural space between MENA and Europe, and to create possibilities of networking and exchange between MENA and Europe and within different countries of MENA. Meeting Points was not a showcase festival about Arab art. It was considered as an invitation to see how artists view and engage with the society they live in and, by extrapolation, to ask how they see the world around them. What are their thoughts, passions, critiques, worries and concerns? How do they see their role and formulate their position in their varied social, political and cultural contexts? How can their vision inspire and nourish us, as well as invite us to grow out of the simplifying clichés with which we try to understand the world?

We cannot understand everything with our European cultural background. I wish to recall and say no to Western arrogance, without renouncing Western culture. Let’s open our windows to make ideas, questions and insights from different locations and histories circulate.

Curator Frie Leysen

Many cultural institutions from the West are active in the Arab world, and together we should remain critical of cultural colonialism and the danger of the dominance of the Western art market and the tendencies to fulfil the expectations (often clichés) of these institutions, audiences and markets.

Tarek Abou El-Fetouh

Mophradat is a Belgian association with offices in Brussels. It was founded in 2004 as the Young Arab Theatre Fund (YATF), and in 2015 changed its name to better accommodate and reflect its evolving mandate and scope of activity. Mophradat is mainly funded by private foundations. The director is Egyptian-born, Brussels-based Mai Abu ElDahab. Mophradat creates opportunities for thinking, producing and sharing among contemporary artists from the Arab world and their peers in the form of scholarships, production grants, research grants, training and residency opportunities, contributing to a more diverse, vital, compelling and emancipatory role of art in the Arab world and elsewhere. Mophradat focuses not so much on exchange but on talent development.

In 2004 dramaturge Hildegard De Vuyst first travelled to the Occupied Territories in the wake of choreographer/director Alain Platel. Since then Palestine has held her in its grip. For 10 years she has been following a new generation of creators whom she supports by all possible means. Hildegard De Vuyst joined forces with the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, the Brussels city theatre KVS and the dance company Les Ballets C de la B for a programme of workshops. This was followed by an exchange under the name PASS (Performing Arts Summer School), coupled with productions like Keffiyeh/Made in China and Badke, seen last season at the Vooruit in Ghent. Along with Palestinian performing artists, De Vuyst went to Rabat, Kinshasa and South Africa, searching for ways for them to strengthen their autonomy. In 2018 this young generation will perform work of its own at the heart of a Flemish-Palestinian event in Ghent. A new association was set up in 2016 under the name Connexion with the aim to support exchange between Flanders, Palestine and artists in other regions of the South.

When attempting to bridge the gap between the self and the other (as in another human being), one should be prepared to avoid, or at least to postpone, judgement. How an artwork is perceived – as something plural, ambiguous or subjective – largely depends on the ongoing renegotiation of our personal experiences.

Hicham Khalidi

Hicham Khalidi, a Moroccan-born curator who was raised in the Netherlands but lives and works in Brussels and Paris, reflects on his role as a curator: ‘When attempting to bridge the gap between the self and the other (as in another human being), one should be prepared to avoid, or at least to postpone, judgement. How an artwork is perceived – as something plural, ambiguous or subjective – largely depends on the ongoing renegotiation of our personal experiences. This gave me an idea: what if we looked at Morocco itself as a work of art? Would it be possible to view national identity as something plural and multiple, something that can be experienced and altered by the ‘other’? Would I be able to penetrate the sedimentary layers of the country’s history as a curator?’

Intermediary organisations and the role of the government

Supported by the Flanders Ministry of Culture, the Flanders Arts Institute (FAI) is an intermediary organisation for the performing arts, music and visual arts. Its mandate covers information-sharing, research, practice development and international relations. It organises research trips and visitor programmes. Intermediaries – like FAI – and export offices need to reflect on how the market logics they are in – linking demand and supply, searching for the most important artistic hotspots or arts events worldwide – relates with the aim to create common cultural spaces with regions like MENA?

FAI works on relations with MENA, considering them as one common space. FAI works with existing individual artists, experts and cultural organisations that bridge different cultures and/or focus on Arab world cultures. FAI also works with cultural institutions and actors such as Moussem, Hicham Khalidi, Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi, Luc Mishalle, Mophradat, Connexion, Darna, etc. FAI facilitates collaboration and co-creation.(18)

Regarding these questions about a common cultural space, FAI had a wonderful experience in 2017 during a week-long visit to Morocco with a group of 15 Belgian art professionals. The visit was co-organised by Lissa Kinnaer (FAI), curator Hicham Khalidi and Léa Morin from L’Atelier de l’Observatoire. The group also had the opportunity to join a two-day workshop with the curatorial education programme Madrassa, which was organised by L’Atelier and involved around 15 curators from MENA. This meeting created a space for diverse and rich interactions.

As a result of these developments, the government in Flanders recently took a number of decisions that will be relevant to the creation of an EU-MENA common space. In early 2018, the Ministry of Culture of Flanders decided to launch a programme that will send an artist from Flanders to the artist residency ‘Le 18’ in Marrakesh every year. Meanwhile, the Flemish Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the cultural exchange between Flanders and Palestine in 2017 and 2018 and announced that it will support Mophradat to invite professionals from the Arab world for two-week orientation residencies in Flanders.


The lack of a national cultural institute in Flanders seems to create opportunities to conceive cultural relations with MENA from the bottom up which can be used and supported at their term by governments and their national cultural institutions.

Working on diversity in our Western cities should not be disconnected from the cultural and diplomatic relations between member states and countries in MENA.

This leads us to some conclusions:

1. There is need in this space for a cultural policy that can go beyond the frameworks of the nation states or regions that support initiatives taken by their own inhabitants or organisations. There is also a need to broaden the frameworks of Europe, which are mainly focused on internal European collaboration. Not only in response to artists who are becoming increasingly mobile and are increasingly difficult to categorise in a single country or region, but also to exploit to the fullest the potential of culture as a negotiation between various places and citizens.

Some countries and regions adapt their policy instruments to these new realities, within the framework of the nation state, it is true. As such, support for the national and international work of artists and organisations, which is increasingly interwoven in societies that are increasingly diverse, is better integrated. They are open to applicants who live and/or work there, regardless of their nationality. Other countries fold back in on themselves and celebrate the national culture as a protection against foreign influences.

Moreover, many countries and regions also have at their disposal instruments abroad in the form of cultural departments within diplomatic delegations or cultural institutes. They ensure the promotion of their country/region and facilitate collaboration between countries on a bilateral basis. These delegations could mean more if they turned their attention to the place where they find themselves, to its needs and opportunities, and what the homeland can contribute in that regard. Such a new approach to cultural diplomacy offers points of contact for more collaboration among those delegations in a particular country about how culture can assume its role as a developer of civil society at that well-determined place.

This supposes that, besides defending the interests of the country that one represents, one also believes in the role of culture in a civil society that we can describe as a transnational civil space. For instance, MORE EUROPE – External cultural relations is a public-private initiative composed of the British Council, Institut français, Goethe Institut, European Cultural Foundation and Stiftung Mercator, whose objective is to highlight and reinforce the role of culture in the EU’s external relations. The British Council, Institut français, Goethe Institut and other cultural institutes work closely together in Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco, setting up joint programmes that they develop alongside their own programmes. That collaboration has encouraged Europe to launch specific programmes for specific countries, like Tfanen for Tunisia. These partnerships and visions on cultural diplomacy form pilots that inspire countries and regions in their own policy vision. Eunic Global, the network of European cultural institutes, advocates this vision of cultural diplomacy and encourages collaboration among its members. Europe’s cultural policy can also be opened up to include the promotion of democracy and civil society through cultural collaboration, both within Europe and in its foreign policy towards third countries.

2.The role of artists and cultural workers, often from a migrant background, working both in Europe and MENA, building relations between art and culture and other domains in society (education, social work, city planning, agriculture), could be better supported. Governments could build on their work and networks rather than build parallel programmes which are often bureaucratic and feebly connected with civil society. This implies that governments should support bottom-up initiatives and co-create with artists, cultural workers and engaged citizens and communities. On the other hand, cultural collaboration between MENA and Europe can mean a lot for artists and organisations in MENA region, who often lack visibility in their own countries and are not always recognised and supported by the big institutions, by media and by the governments.

3.’Here’ and ‘there’ are deeply interrelated. Intercultural work on a national and regional level should be tied to the relations between member states and MENA. Working on diversity in our Western cities should not be disconnected from the cultural and diplomatic relations between member states and countries in MENA. Building one common cultural space in diversity is an effort of neighbourhoods, cities, member states’ foreign affairs and EU external relations – interconnected trajectories.

Essay based on a lecture by Dirk De Wit on 21 February 2018 in Rabat in the context of The Cultural Relations at Work (CReW) project, an Action under the Jean Monnet Projects financed by the Erasmus+ Programme, Jean Monnet Activities (EAC-A03- 2016).

Je leest: Towards a common cultural sphere between the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the European Union (EU)