Think European, Act Locally

Published on 31st January 2012 by Vânia Rodrigues

Many of the efforts and investments that are made on a local and regional level are driven by a Europe-wide need. At the same time, however, the old industrial, military or even administrative buildings that are now redundant or that have been abandoned across many countries in Europe constitute a local problem and act as a mirror of the dramatic structural change in the profile of the European economy.


In many cases, demolition of these buildings may put a part of our collective cultural heritage in jeopardy. But simply conserving and documenting them is also not enough. It is the intervention of the public, now taking place in so many European cities, which gives those sites and buildings new purpose (including cultural purpose), and which represents the widespread European effort to consolidate new cultural identities. Unlike many other tasks incumbent on cities and regions, this type of intervention and its cultural remit cannot be transferred to centralized European bodies. The competence for culture remains a local and regional responsibility.


However, this responsibility implies an obligation to work within an European context. In that sense, a city or region will not contribute to Europe’s cultural profile simply by identifying its assets and areas of potential, and by caring for them, conserving them, and providing access to them. It is not what a city or region possesses that is of significance, but how it uses its potential.


But are councillors, mayors and cultural agents aware of their European mandate? Do they acknowledge the importance that emerges from their cultural action, and do they see themselves as European players at all? More importantly – are they willing to draw practical consequences from the European responsibility that derives from their action on a local level?

In the face of such questions, what is needed is an acute understanding that the cultural projects of our cities are also European projects. If our European cities shape Europe’s soul, they also bear direct responsibility for it. The immediate consequence of this direct responsibility of the cities and regions for European culture is at the same time their responsibility for Europe.


Next year, the city of Guimarães will be hosting the European Capital of Culture. This will represent a great opportunity to test our readiness to fulfil this challenge. Alongside the quality of the cultural and artistic programme, it is the extent to which a city can utilize its cultural potential and put it to work in all areas of municipal policy (town planning, economic and social affairs, environment, education, and so forth.) that ultimately defines its capacity to have European significance and impact.


The shared cultural responsibility of cities and regions for Europe also involves developing the capacity to meet the challenge of building Europe from the bottom up, by improving civic engagement, and by favouring true ownership of civic and political issues. According to a position paper of the Access to Culture Platform, ‘participation in the arts is fundamental to the development of an active European citizenship, which is in turn central to democratic, open and inclusive European societies.’ Therefore, the cultural lives of cities harbour the potential for building a Europe of the citizens, not merely for the citizens.


A few days ago, some of the world’s leading strategists met at the Arrábida Monastery in Lisbon, to analyze and discuss political, social and strategic matters. During the opening panel, former EU commissioner Chris Patten pointed out that it is becoming more and more difficult to explain to younger generations the existence of the European Union as a project to prevent war between European countries. Instead, Patten claimed that Europe is in need of a new narrative, rightly asking ‘what is Europe for in the 21st century?’ In other words: when faced with the economic turmoil in Europe, an 18-year old may well ask themselves why they should choose to live in Europe – and a great deal of the answer to this question should be culturally based.


Let us not leave this question unanswered, and let us not leave that task solely in the hands of European politicians, economists and bureaucrats. The city is the ideal place to start from the bottom-up. If local politicians, artists, cultural programmers, and European Capitals of Culture begin to answer this crucial question, their answer can make a difference to our collective European future.

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