Assessing the true role of culture in European diplomacy

September 16, 2016, 11:38 am

Culture has a key role in shaping international relations. Traditionally labelled soft power, the set of values a political entity has and its potential to spread its culture abroad are essential tools in its influence on global affairs. As we mentioned in our last news Digest, the EU has recently published a strategy for cultural diplomacy. But shortly after this promising publication, the failed coup in Turkey has revealed once again the predominance of realpolitik and one of its side effects – short-sighted compromise.

This tendency comes from the pressure felt by EU leaders following the outbreak of the refugee crisis, which threatened the political stability of many countries along with Schengen – one of the European Union’s cornerstone policies. Tensions were rising between countries, with some building fences along their borders, and with a North-South divide starting to emerge on the issue.

After a plan by the European Commission to distribute refugees among member states failed, EU leaders – under German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lead – reached a compromise with Ankara, despite the Turkish government’s tradition for censorship and overall jeopardizing of freedom of expression, including artistic. The agreement – which committed Turkey to help stopping migrants from reaching EU territory in exchange for funds, visa liberalization and a promise to re-open EU accession talks – succeeded in momentarily reducing the flow of migrants, but it failed to stop the many debates that kept rising in national politics on the integration of those refugees that had already entered.

Most importantly, it sent the signal that the European Union is ready to compromise on its fundamental values in order to fabricate short-term “solutions” to difficult challenges. In fact, it must be assessed that the deal was nothing more than a smokescreen that served both sides’ short-term interests anyway. The European Parliament will eventually disapprove the visa liberalization scheme, and the issue of EU accession is politically toxic in many member states. On the other end, Erdogan most likely cut a deal to access funds and create short-term hope for visa liberalization. But the opening of EU accession chapters are only born of a political strategy to extract benefits from Europe whenever possible and to prove Ankara’s influence in the region, while strengthening the nationalist sentiment among citizens when negotiations eventually break.

In the current context that sees Erdogan cracking down on political opponents as well as intellectuals, artists, and overall on civil society, the refugee deal cannot possibly be a sustainable strategy for the EU. The situation should prompt European leaders to reflect on the long-term interest of their continental union, instead of fabricating short-term arrangements that harm the EU’s capacity to influence global affairs. National leaders should embrace cultural diplomacy and the promotion of their exceptional cultures as a cornerstone of the EU’s foreign policy, and not simply as a side-policy that keeps being overshadowed by what politicians like to call real constraints, or crises.

The polycrisis – or multiplication of policy justification of that sort – that the EU faces seems to trigger a prominence of tough rhetoric. As well as focusing on assimilation instead of cultural dialogue when facing an inflow of refugees, an increasing number of EU politicians now (yet again) turn their commitments to hard over soft power, as suggested by the recent push for a EU army in an attempt to launch a post-Brexit-vote EU momentum.

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