A consistent EU strategy for cultural diplomacy is essential

On 8 June, the European Commission and the European External Action Service unveiled a joint strategy for cultural diplomacy, as part of a plan for the EU to become a stronger global actor and contributor to sustainable growth, peace and mutual understanding. While having a strategy is a first step, implementation remains a challenge, especially considering the EU’s recent foreign policy moves and the growing illiberal movements in some member states.

A strategy for using culture as a way to revive the European Union’s global influence and soft power had long been missing from the union’s toolkit. The European Union was founded on core values that define our societies, including the promotion of peace, the rule of law, freedom of speech, fundamental rights and mutual understanding. These values are an essential part of the European cultures that have projected to create a union of the people for the past decades, and they serve as a role model for external relations in the world. In this context, the push by cultural stakeholders to see culture included in development cooperation was a logical objective, especially when considered the various impacts culture can have in diplomatic relations and international cohesion along with creative and economic development.

As the European Union is experiencing a “return to history” with surrounding threats – notably coming from Russia and Islamist movements that trigger terror attacks on EU soil like the terrible tragedy that just happened in Nice – it was a necessity to include EU values and cultural richness in the union’s global strategy. In itself, the paper is already a breakthrough. Soft and hard power used to be the sovereign competence of individual states, so building a common basis for cultural influence on the international scene could have raised anger in states where nationalists have managed to reach power in the past few years.

But even for these governments, the strategy can be worthwhile, as they realise that their soft power and international cultural influence has been declining – as was found in a report by the Portland Institute – and is best promoted through a collective effort. Additionally, cultural policy is also a state’s primarily competency. But budgets have been consistently cut over the past few years, and the cultural and creative sectors increasingly rely on the EU for funding and policy initiatives.

A common policy at the EU level thus would give member states the option to rely on and develop existing EU programmes – including the Creative Europe Programme – and policy initiatives for advancing cultural cooperation with partner countries – including by supporting culture as an engine for sustainable social and economic development, intercultural dialogue for peaceful inter-community relations and reinforcing cooperation on cultural heritage. What strikes in this paper is that it opens new windows of opportunity for experimentation, especially as regards cultural implications in development strategies. Culture as a sector, but also as both an enabler and driver of development now has a toolkit to act on a global level.

But even though the adoption by the Commission of the strategy is a step, its implementation will still have to be watched closely. The first issue that comes to mind is the incompatibility of such a strategy with recent EU external actions, particularly as regards the refugee crisis and the concomitant deal passed with Turkey. The Turkish government has a proven record of violating human rights and restricting freedom of artistic expression on political grounds. Secondly, the EU now has to deal with member governments that openly criticise its core values, and thus indirectly threaten to undermine the credibility of the strategy before it is even adopted.


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