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Can culture save the EU?

With a backdrop that includes Brexit and mass migration, the idea of ‘the other’ can prove catastrophic.

With a backdrop that includes Brexit and mass migration, the idea of ‘the other’ can prove catastrophic.

A high-level conference titled ‘Cultural heritage in Europe: Linking past and future’ was recently held at the European Parliament in Brussels. Iggy Fenech shares his thoughts in its aftermath.

From Finland to Cyprus, and Ireland to Estonia, the European Union (EU) covers a tract of land that isn’t just vast but also home to many diverse peoples.

Each of those comes with its own tangible and intangible cultural heritage that helps the members of that community identify with their motherland and their ancestry, like language, food, music, religion, customs and dance. Yet, they are also things we can use to show how different we are from our neighbours, the immigrants living among us, or those who may somehow not fit in entirely.

With a backdrop that includes Brexit, mass migration and an influx of refugees coming from various countries, the idea of ‘the other’ can not only prove dangerous but also catastrophic. After all, the European dream of a united continent has always been more than just about open markets and freedom of movement. It is about the exchange of ideas, the building of relationships and a burning desire to not let Europe descend into war once again.

Upon opening the “Cultural heritage in Europe: linking past and future’ conference, Antonio Taljani, the President of the European Parliament, said that “we [Europeans] can’t forget the things that unite us” and that “only those without an identity are afraid”.

These feelings were mirrored by the European Commission’s President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who added that the fragility of the EU comes from lack of solidarity and that “we don’t know enough about each other”.

Culture, however, can be the catalyst for us to reconnect with our cousins across the continent in a way that a single market and a single currency have not been able to do. And that is why this conference was one of the main events for the EU Parliament in 2018, the year christened as the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

Among the speakers were some of Europe’s best in the various fields that make up and drive Europe’s cultural sector, including conductor and composer Ezio Bosso, who explained how music could help bridge the gap between cultures, who said that “music teaches us how to listen”.

This idea was also touched upon by Ricardo Rivero Ortego, the Rector of the University of Salamanca in Spain, who insisted that “we need to teach young people what Europeanness is” but that “we also need to listen to what [young Europeans] have to say”. The continent, much like the world, after all, belongs to the next generation.

Culture can be the catalyst for us to reconnect with our cousins across the continent in a way that a single market and a single currency have not been able to do

Split into various sections that focused on the preservation of heritage to its economic potential, the day-long conference was rather monumental in scale but its message was rather simple.

From French chef Thierry Marx, who explained how there is “no contradiction between tradition and innovation”, to Romanian-born film director Radu Mihăileanu, who advocated for better resources to be given to the cultural sector, the conference came back to the same conclusion time and time again.

Culture is something everyone has regardless of economic background, nationality, ethnicity or religion. And culture is also something we can easily share with others. In fact, that is what makes Europeanness a thing: the fact that our ‘culture’ has, in one way or another, been influenced by that of our neighbours over the years, making us more alike than we can imagine.

But, more than that, the conference also sought to make another point – that European culture is too rich to be boxed up. Because, in reality, whether it’s Picasso or Mozart, Ġgantija Temples or Buckingham Palace, French or Romansh, Zorba the Greek or James Bond, La Divina Commedia or Harry Potter, our culture is bigger than us and should be used to unite, not separate Europeans.

Having said that, the European Union has limited powers when it comes to a nation’s cultural heritage. Indeed, the roles of European institutions are generally limited to financial support, coordination of joint projects and efforts and the sharing of knowledge. And, while there are undoubtedly many things that could be bettered, the EU is clearly taking culture more seriously than ever before.

Among the many things in the pipeline, the EU Commission has proposed the doubling of funding for the Erasmus project, which around 400 Maltese students from the University of Malta already make use of annually.

Another project, which has since been rejected by the EU Parliament, was a new and somewhat controversial directive to change EU copyright laws for digital in order to ensure artists get fair monetary compensation for their work.

Many different angles were tackled during the conference, which included speakers from the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the European Historic Houses Association, the Bozar in Belgium, the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, and Unesco, to mention but a few.

But it was a comment by Hermann Perzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which in my opinion, captured the spirit of the conference. “What do churches, museums and art tell us if we don’t understand history?”

As the Far Right is once again poking its head through the cracks, our history and the history of the other – so far – 28 Member States can teach us a lot. Particularly about what happens when we are made to believe that our neighbours are our enemies, and when we start thinking that our countries are better off alone, or simply better in general.

And, maybe, that is the curse of our times. Because we take what we have for granted and are willing to forfeit it to do what’s already been done and didn’t work. And it’s almost understandable really, because what could someone living in rural France have in common with a Polish person in Warsaw?

Well, nothing, except for the fact that they both live on a continent whose history and traditions have been intertwined for millennia, and which, in its variety, is homogenously rich – meaning that we are stronger together than apart.

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