The European Parliament elections come at an interesting moment for cultural affairs on the continent.
The year 2018 marked the European Year of Cultural Heritage across the EU. This year is witnessing EU actors engage in a debate that tries to take stock of the state of cultural heritage and plan ahead on how best to prioritise action through the necessary funding.
On April 1, the European Commission held the first Europe-wide debate on the state of cultural heritage to initiate this dual process.
In his remarks in Dublin, not chosen coincidentally due to its strategic position in the light of Brexit, the Commissioner for Culture, Tibor Navracsics, commented on the achievement of culture scaling up local, national, regional and European political priorities over the past years.
A number of recommendations, declarations, work plans and European Years, including those organised around the European capitals of culture, have enabled politicians and policymakers, advocacy groups, civil society and European citizens at large to acknowledge the values of culture and heritage in different aspects of their social lives.
However, Navracsics also noted that the challenge now lay in keeping culture high in the list of priorities – no mean feat.
The European Parliament elections have been cast as a moment when far right and populist movements can finally catch up with the European liberal elite and turn the tables on decades of economic and social laissez faire marked by multiculturalism, globalisation and a loss of European traditional identity.
However, cultural and civil society organisations, including the platform Culture Action Europe, have called for a greater degree of engagement by citizens, and their political representatives, to make their voices heard.
These include the quality of life as experienced and expressed through human relations built and nurtured on the basis of open and democratic cultures that cherish intercultural dialogue, a practice of tradition, a sustainable approach towards natural and built-up environments and a cultural sense motivated by curiosity and solidarity.
Malta is part of this continent-wide process. Fifteen years after having joined the EU, its progression has been patchy.
While economic and financial stability and growth seem strong, the relationship of people among themselves, with their environment and heritage has significantly suffered from economic prioritisation and financial logic. The European Parliament elections are an opportunity for citizens to consider political messages and actions that may show real interest in workable alternatives to the money-oriented, short-sighted exploitation of human environments and cultural expression in the form of tangible or intangible heritage.
Keeping culture high in the list of priorities is no mean feat
Speaking at the eighth European summit of regions and cities “(Re)New EUrope” held in mid-March in Bucharest, Europa Nostra’s vice president, Piet Jaspaert, noted how people are not only at the heart of the European project but at the core of any relations they choose to build with their past, present and future.
It is truly a pity when this concept of ‘choice’ becomes blurred by political rhetoric that is contradictory and hypocritical, warning of no alternatives to traditional forms of development on the one hand while trumpeting the same old and tired practices that favour the haves to the disadvantage of the have-nots, as new ways of doing politics.
One strength that lies in a culturally-sensible and sensitive approach is that of encouraging a curious, creative and open angle to be opened on policy, practices and dynamics in society that may thrive, rather than wither, in the face of diversity, history and identity politics.
It is true that cultural policy in the EU is managed on the basis of subsidiarity, where member states legislate and practise the prioritisation of their cultural expressions without undue policy restrictions from the EU or their peers. However, the strength of the European project may indeed lie in its motto, unity in diversity, if citizens, and their political representatives, practise a solidary approach across the continent, including its islands and peripheral regions, conceiving of and expressing their collective identities to the benefit of all those who care to do so.
Europe is rich in heritage and may, unfortunately, encourage its citizens, old and new, to look back rather than forward by seeking nostalgia and comfort there.
Such a perspective on our identities may foment parochialism, clans and exclusive communities.
On the other hand, as argued by the late Mediterraneanist Sebastiano Tusa, our cultural heritage may be an infinite source of narratives, lessons and stories from the past that accompany us in our present and may help us, if we choose, to further seek what brings us together in the future in the shape of open and accessible communities that find their home in Europe.
Karsten Xuereb is a researcher and practitioner of European cultural policy.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece