Interview with EUNIC: European Cultural Policy
“Seeking Genuine Understanding”

EUNIC believes in exchange and understanding;
EUNIC believes in exchange and understanding; | Photo (detail): © EUNIC

Europe faces many challenges, and nationalist tendencies are becoming increasingly popular in some countries. Is the European idea falling apart – and what can culture do to prevent this from happening? An interview with Andrew Murray, the director of EUNIC, the network of European Union National Institutes for Culture.

Mr Murray, you are the director of an institution that seeks to foster cultural cooperation and exchange – that’s quite a broad-ranging remit…

That is indeed what we try to do: we wish to foster collaboration and exchange between the peoples of the EU and the rest of the world by working with EU national institutes for culture and national institutions responsible for cultural relations and cultural diplomacy, which includes ministries of foreign affairs and ministries of culture. This is no easy task; nationalism is still the dominant force in the world. Cultural diplomacy has until very recently been about promoting a nation’s culture and its national brand. And this approach is only now being challenged by EU institutions. This challenge was made by Frederica Mogherini when she suggested that there could be a better way of doing cultural diplomacy.

What exactly did she mean?

Andrew Murray from the UK heads EUNIC’s office in Brussels; Andrew Murray from the UK heads EUNIC’s office in Brussels; | © EUNIC Rather than projecting and promoting European cultures to the rest of the world, we should be building trust and understanding with the peoples outside the EU, with the values of mutuality and reciprocity at the heart of our approach. She also said that culture should be at the core of the EU’s new foreign policy. I don’t think that any national government has yet grasped how radical this could be. This approach has a second major component: a much deeper and wider definition of culture. Not just the arts, but governance, rights issues, sport, education. They call this new approach international cultural relations rather than cultural diplomacy. And the initiative here is not coming from member states. The driver for change is coming from European institutions: the European Parliament, the European External Action Service and the European Commission.

Besides this kind of international strategy, do we not also need a strategy designed to revive the European spirit? Instead of standing together, what we see in many cases in the European Union is people falling back into nationalistic stances. Right-wing populists are enjoying election successes. How are we to advertise Europe in the world if we cannot agree amongst ourselves?

Well, I don’t think there is such a thing as a European spirit, not yet anyway. When you try to talk about European culture in New Delhi, Beijing or Rio, you find yourself talking about Italian fashion or French cuisine or German literature. Wherever you are looking you are looking at the cultures of Europe, not the culture of Europe. The former EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso had a notion of putting a group of intellectuals into a room and having them come up with a new European narrative. It doesn’t work that way. Culture works from the bottom up. And at the moment, the things which really bind Europeans together are EasyJet and RyanAir, not the narratives created by intellectuals. Young people are travelling around and experiencing Europe thanks to these budget airlines. And thanks to the Erasmus plus education programme. These are the instruments that are promoting a sense of Europe.

So what role does culture currently play in terms of nationalism and anti-European populism?

Culture is hugely important, because what these populist movements are about is the conflation of politics with culture. They are saying that “my nation, my people, my language, my culture is better than yours”. And politicians are starting to learn that this rhetoric brings success with the electorate. The political leaders of the two mainstream Austrian parties learned that in the 2016 presidential elections. They became weaker, whereas the green party and the far right party grew stronger. They are the ones who are providing popular visions of the future. But their visions are based upon culture: one about holding onto Austrian identity, and the other about a broader and more idealistic global vision. So you can’t ignore culture. Particularly if you understand culture as being wider and deeper than the arts – and as including history, language and a notion of yourself and how you imagine yourself in society.

What role can national cultural institutions play in overcoming this attitude of “my culture is better than yours” and in delivering a more comprehensive approach?

Germany has done a fantastic job of rebranding itself since 1945. People are asking: “How did you do this? How did you move from everyone thinking you are the worst nation in the world to them thinking you are the best nation in the world?” This was done, at least in part, by practising cultural relations rather than cultural diplomacy. Since the 1950s, the Goethe-Institut has been promoting the values of mutuality and reciprocity, and to a large extent it has been the Goethe-Institut and other arms-length cultural institutions such as the British Council which have demonstrated that building trust is best done by developing people-to-people relationships rather than relying on traditional cultural or public diplomacy.

EUNIC – European Union National Institutes for Culture

is the network of the institutes for culture of the 28 member states of the European Union. Founded in 2007, EUNIC’s remit is to establish a permanent exchange between the national institutes. Furthermore, EUNIC is intended to strengthen the diversity of and relations between European societies and to foster international dialogue and cooperation with non-European countries. The Goethe-Institut is a member of the EUNIC network.