Making culture in the EU, an interview with Diego Marani

18 March 2019 /

© Diego Marani

Diego Marani is an Italian novelist, translator, and newspaper columnist. In 1996 he invented Europanto, a mock international auxiliary language published in several Belgian and French newspapers. After being responsible for the European multilingualism policy for almost nine years, he is now advisor for cultural policy at the European external action service in Brussels, where Eyes on Europe got the chance to interview him.

Eyes on Europe:  Your activity is often referred to as “cultural cooperation”. What does it mean to make cultural policies and how do they differ from the ones of nation states?

Well, states have always dealt with the concept of “cultural policy” and promoted what is called “cultural diplomacy”. In this case we are discussing a foreign policy which was meant to be a policy of influence: they were trying to sell a cultural product and use their “cultural strength” to influence another society, another public opinion. We are not a nation state, we are an international organization, we cannot and we do not want to have this kind of attitude. Our goal is instead to create a space for dialogue with other countries. We deeply try to avoid being regarded as the heirs of ancient colonial superpowers, who in the past have contaminated other civilizations with their culture, ideas and the European vision of the world.

We are not interested in this, what we want is to put our culture on the same level of those of our partners, creating a common ground from where we can start producing, together, the culture of modern times. What we wish to stress is also that we are not there either to teach others how to “do their job” or impose a model for making culture. Instead, we want to exchange good practices and learn from one another. That is why we encourage the aspect of cooperation, of collaboration between artists and cultural operators, such as museum directors and managers of cultural sites.

Eyes on Europe: Have you ever been accused of behaving like a “colonial power”? Who has accused you?

Well, we have never received specific accusations, especially since our primary concern has always been to present ourselves in a way that could avoid this kind of misperception. That is also for this reason that we decided to define our cultural policies as “cultural external relations”, instead of using the expression “cultural diplomacy”, which makes reference to the policies of nation states, of our member states. It is a new concept that we have invented de facto and that is not consolidated yet, and that is why many people when hearing and discussing what we do; just reach the conclusion that we are making cultural diplomacy. But only a small part of our role can be actually regarded as “cultural diplomacy” and it is linked to the treaties and their provisions. They ask us to support Member states in their cultural policies, and we do that when our delegations help the activities of national cultural institutes.

We decided to define our cultural policies as “cultural external relations”, instead of using the expression “cultural diplomacy”, which makes reference to the policies of nation states, of our member states.

For the rest, our activities have a complete different approach and we use a terminological distinction to indicate it: the traditional “approach” is called showcasing, which means that we show our cultures to promote them in the world. The other aspect, which is central to us and which defines our politics, is called “people to people”, and it is the one of a direct contribution between the cultural operators, of the EU and of our partner countries. This is due to the fact that we do not want to limit ourselves, as it happens in the case of showcasing, when you may have as partners only the members of the cultural establishment of a country. For example, in some countries an exhibition of great Italian painters would only be available to a restricted and selected group of people, not to everybody. In this way we are able to involve many more actors in the processes and especially in the outcomes.

Eyes on Europe: The next question was exactly about that, what do you mean by culture?

It is always very difficult to give a precise definition of culture, since it usually depends on the discipline that you take as a reference: anthropology, sociology, etc. In our case we mean a wide range of activities, from culture as such, in the sense of artistic forms of expression, to all those activities where you can find a cultural substratum, such as design and tourism, the management of cultural heritage, fairs and festivals. Then, there is the creation of real “cultural products”, such as TV, audio-visual, publishing and cinematographic products, and even music videos.

Eyes on Europe: What projects are you currently pursuing and what are the future ones?

They are so many that it would take too much to discuss them properly! But we do have some tendencies and priorities, together with some regions of the world that we are currently prioritising.

In general terms, we finance cultural activities through three main types of budget headings: the first is “development aid”, which supports development projects all around the world, and that has a strong cultural component. Anyway, we are currently focused on Africa and the Caribbean, the latter being especially important right now because of the changes that are occurring in Cuba.

Secondly, we carry out many activities with a strong cultural component within the frame of our neighbourhood policy, notably with Ukraine, Armenia and the Western Balkans, a region which retains fundamental strategic importance and where several candidate countries are located. The other priority is North Africa, where we are currently trying to foster a process of stabilization after the upheavals of the Arab Springs. There, we are trying to create and pursue activities which can boost economic growth but also “consolidate” societies, by strengthening their identity and sense of belonging to social groups. These activities are also carried out with a view to contain immigration. Finally, there’s the General Direction of Culture, which is more oriented towards the internal policies of the EU, such as Creative Europe and the Erasmus programme.

We try to “consolidate” societies, by strengthening their identity and sense of belonging to social groups

Oh, and we are focused on Latin America, a region which is very close to us in linguistic and cultural terms. The idea is to work through regional priorities, using a regional approach which has recently been introduced and which, we believe, will make us more effective, since working in only one country ignoring the region it belongs seems reductive and dispersive. Clearly, countries like Russia and China are also among our goals, but we have to recognise that in these cases there are some additional difficulties.

Eyes on Europe:  So we could say that your action is based on a concept of culture which belongs to two different models: one as a “product” and one as a “producer of identity and cohesion”. Is this true? Are actually these the bases of your action?

Yes. Our actions follow three pillars: one is culture as a tool for development, the other is culture as “cultural dialogue” and the third is culture as “cultural heritage”. The first two are those that I have been describing so far. The third one is the pillar which crosses horizontally the other two. Culture has an economic aspect and we use it to boost economic growth, notably through the production of cultural goods for a society able and willing to consume them. Obviously, an archaeological site represents a powerful opportunity to boost economic development too, through tourism but not exclusively.

Its potential does not stop there: instead, an archaeological site can be regarded as the keeper of an identity and the witness of a multiculturality which has always been there: think of Palmyra, where you can observe a proof of how different religions and civilisations were able not only to live, but peacefully coexist. In this sense, an archaeological site, as indicated in its broader sense of “Cultural heritage” is a value to us because it preserves and testifies the memory of a model of intercultural dialogue that we bring forward and suggest to reproduce even today.  It is a model based on a process of inclusive “identity developing and strengthening” and which represents a sound alternative to the exclusive one, which is in fashion as well today.

By inclusive we mean consolidating a society and making it aware of its origins, history and of its present identity in order to make it able to better absorb diversities, to confront them in a very peaceful, not conflictual way, and also to benefit from them as enrichment. When we have the certainty of our roots, we are more able to accept the diverse, we are not afraid of it, we accept the exchange and the dialogue it creates in a process of mutual enriching. This is our project; this is what we try to do.

Eyes on Europe:  Please correct me in case, but this process of mutual enriching seems to be in Fieri also within the EU, where in spite of having a cultural substratum, we talk about 27 different cultures.  

It is an aspect worth considering. If we stick to the treaties, the EU should not make culture. It is not our competence. We should only be sustaining member states in carrying out their own cultural policies and yet, for more than twenty years, the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture, in the exercise of its competence, has de facto produced European cultural products, notably the ones of Creative Europe, but not exclusively. The Erasmus project, for example, has created what we could define as a “societal feature”, which characterises young people who have had working and studying experiences in other countries. So the EU has ended up, even without wanting it or without it being in his specific mandate mission, to make culture.

Now the same is happening with our cultural policies in foreign countries. By making culture, proposing ourselves as cultural actors, inevitably in return we express a culture, which is the one of dialogue, participation, co-production with our partners. This culture is inevitably reflected within the EU, thanks to the cultural operators with whom we work. By coming from our member states, they are the expression of their own societies, but when they go back home after working with us and with each other, they also take back with them the result of what they have seen, done and realised in this cultural dialogue. A new and shared heritage. We can thus say that by interacting with the others, the EU defines itself. So yes there is also this aspect, involuntary, indirectly which acts as a mirror on the European cultural identity.

We talk much about European cultural identity and we rush into saying that it does not exist, that it is indefinable, that we are patchwork of different cultures and identities and that that is our strength. Clearly, that is an absolute truth. Our strength lies in our cultural variety and this cultural variety, this persistent dialogue between different cultures has nourished our history and has made of Europe, for centuries and even millennia, a cultural, economic and development engine of unrivalled proportions in the world.

We talk much about European cultural identity and we rush into saying that it does not exist.

But it is also true that if you grasp under these cultural identities you find a common thread, which is the one of the traditional classical culture, which comes from the ancient ages and that has consolidated itself later on. It does not belong to either Greece or Rome, it has no borders, since it’s shared and has been produced by all the other European countries throughout history. Seventeen Roman emperors came from the Balkans. Even in this you need more self-awareness, we are a patchwork of different cultures but behind that there is a common thread which is where all our cultures emanate.

Beatrice Pepe est étudiante de Master 2 à l’ULB

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