Filip Zieliński: Culture Meets Europe’s Challenges

Eurozine was invited to both report on and participate in the ‘European Cultural Challeng’ in May 2018 in Amsterdam, a two-day advocacy retreat organised by the European Cultural Foundation, bringing together a hundred participants from 17 European countries, with the general aim to ‘re-think and build Europe as an open, inclusive and democratic space in which courageous citizens dare to imagine different futures.’ A challenge, indeed.

The event was far from introspective: In fact, it did not at all limit its focus to the cultural field. Instead, it recognized that the challenges that Europe faces involve many aspects of life, including the economy, media, urban development, or how societies deal with diversity, to name a few. Thus, the Challenge discussed the interconnectedness of culture and society and the relevance of culture for other “sectors”. Understandably, in two days, all of this could merely be outlined.


One of the working groups discussed diversity in Europe, taking the European Union’s unofficial motto – in varietate concordia, united in diversity – as a starting point. This motto is a plea for pluralism. It claims that diversity and unity do not contradict each other: In Europe we have a rich diversity of languages, political views, memory cultures – and we can strive to accept, even embrace, these differences, and live, work, decide together, also on a trans-national, European level. Nationalism, on the other hand, dreams up a homogeneity that is necessarily at odds with reality and makes diversity seem like a problem that demands a solution.

A participant said that ‘diversity’ is part of the ‘DNA’ of the European Union. But how far is the cultural sector really a role model when it comes to pluralism? Many cultural organisations recognize the importance of cultural diversity, but their actual practices will tell a somewhat different story, according to the introduction to the Dutch Cultural Diversity Code. The working group agreed that there is still work to be done, and that cultural organisations need to set a good example.

Creative Europe

Another main focus of the working group was to discuss current developments in cultural policy, both on national and EU level. The European Cultural Challenge in May 2018 coincided with the publication of the first draft of the EU budget for 2021-2027, including the budget for culture, realised first and foremost via the ‘Creative Europe’ program. Thankfully, Culture Action Europe – a co-organiser of the Challenge – had been advocating for a substantial increase of the Creative Europe budget (much like is the case for national budgets, if you compare it to the overall budget, it’s a bit like two bowls of peanuts, instead of one). Later on, in March 2019, the draft passed the European Parliament including a doubled budget, a strengthened Creative Europe program and more funding for culture in other strands such as science or education programs. But interinstitutional negotiations will continue only when the next EU government has formed – after the upcoming EU elections in May 2019.

When it comes to European cultural policy, it seems that culture is subject to several priorities that are not inherently ‘cultural’: Foreign relations with non-EU countries, economic (jobs) and social development. The dominant narrative of culture as ‘creative industries’ makes a valid point but tends to pull culture towards commercial interests. While it makes sense to argue for the value of culture by pointing to its inter-connectedness with other aspects of life, it would be a mistake to neglect, simultaneously, the value of culture as an important aspect of life in and for itself. The question, thus, is not only about the size of the budget for Creative Europe, but the narratives and priorities that determine which activities and organisations become eligible for funding.

I keep my fingers crossed for one particular new priority that the European Council added to its proposal for Creative Europe already in May 2018, which reads: ‘(…) to promote cross cutting activities covering several sectors aiming at adjusting to the structural changes faced by the media sector, including enhancing a free, diverse, and pluralistic media environment, quality journalism and media literacy.’

Meeting challenges together

In 2019, ahead of the second European Cultural Challenge, many challenges need to be addressed, and the ‘information crisis’ is certainly one of them. Today, we see the effects of years of political and economic pressure on Europe’s media spheres. In 2011, the historian Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Review of Books that ‘We should have bailed out the newspapers back in 2008: it would have cost a tiny fraction of what we spent on bailing out the banks.’ I would add independent media here, and otherwise couldn’t agree more. If we want robust democracies, we need our newspapers, cultural journals, podcasts, public broadcasters, investigative journalism blogs and all sorts of cultural media, to be independent and strong. Quality journalism, appreciation of critical thinking and a common European public sphere make the prospects of Europe going down the ‘Road to unfreedom’ (see Snyder’s recent book) much less likely.

When markets and politics fail, civil society has to step in. There are numerous efforts that create a European public sphere, both top-down and bottom-up. Eurozine is one of the latter, as it links up existing cultural media with each other and with European audiences. What started 35 years ago as an informal meeting of cultural journal editors became the basis for Eurozine, founded in 1998 as an online cultural journal and editorial network. The informal meetings have become annual conferences with over 100 participants. The online journal Eurozine has been publishing on European culture and politics for two decades. Many of the articles are contributed by Eurozine partner journals from all over Europe. We are proud of the diversity of our network, of the content we publish and the people that make up Eurozine’s team and boards. And it all started with a meeting of colleagues.

The first European Cultural Challenge may not have found all the answers to all the challenges. But it showed that one of the strengths of the cultural field is the ability to collaborate and form alliances based on common goals: It is prepared to work together and to ensure that the cultural sector is strong and independent enough to offer to all of us in Europe the means to understand, critically evaluate and also shape the developments and challenges of our times.

This text was first published in the European Cultural Foundation’s Annual Magazine 2018. An earlier version of this article was published in Political Critique.

Filip Zieliński is Eurozine’s managing director.

Photo by Xander Remkes