The pillars of the EU strategy for international cultural relations

As we discussed in week 1, cultural diplomacy is an ambivalent concept. It can be approached as a tool through which states and/or international organisations pursue foreign policy objectives, promote better and closer relations, and extend their overall societal and political influence. By contrast, a second and more self-reflexive definition conceives cultural diplomacy as a policy area on its own that advances quality of life, the arts, capacity building, economic growth and social cohesion, by engaging citizens, both as producers and consumers of cultural activities.

Within the cultural diplomacy domain, an organic development of international cultural relations aims at engaging national governments, international and regional organisations, as well as civil society actors into a constructive dialogue based on equality and mutual respect, over and beyond the socio-economic and power inequalities of the different countries and actors involved.

The new cultural diplomacy model embraced by the EU combines elements of both definitions. As a soft and smart power tool, it contributes to increase the global visibility and influence of the EU, favouring a constructive dialogue with third countries in a climate of mutual exchange and respect. In other words, the new model responds both to pragmatic and altruistic motives at the same time.

Such a balanced approach is viewed as a way for the EU’s cultural diplomacy to be complementary with the strategies implemented by the different member states, and to distinguish itself from global players like the USA and China for which hard power and soft power are closely intertwined.

As we have seen in week 1, China has been making numerous investments to promote a positive image of itself and to diffuse its culture.

The EU cultural diplomacy by contrast takes a different approach. The new EU model, in fact, promotes public-private partnerships, for example by building synergies among national ministries of culture, local firms, artists, and cultural networks, and favours a “people-to-people” approach, aiming at bypassing ‘hard’ diplomacy at the inter-state level to reach out to civil society actors and artists in third countries and regions.

As confirmed by the recently launched EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, as well as by the new European Consensus on Development, culture has become an integral part of a strategic, cross-cutting approach to the EU international relations.

At the same time cultural diplomacy remains a distinct phenomenon, playing a crucial complementary role in supporting the EU’s development, trade, defence and security policies. It aims at making the most of the cultural domain through a grounded approach, by addressing directly artists, curators, cultural institutions, non-governmental organisations, local and national authorities, as well as by forging close cooperation with other key international cultural actors, such as the Council of Europe, with its pioneering role in this domain, or with UNESCO, building on its global influence and recognition.

Implementing the EU strategy of cultural diplomacy

In the last few years, four main institutional actors have been advancing the case for a substantive EU strategy for international cultural relations: the European Commission, the European External Action Service, the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union.

Within the European Commission, the greatest number of projects have been proposed and developed by the Directorate-General (DG) for Education and Culture (EAC), together with the DG for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO) and the DG for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (NEAR), the last two having the greatest budgets to invest. Since 2016 the DGs have been cooperating closely among each other and with the European External Action Service (EEAS) to plan and carry out concrete actions on the ground.

Some of these actions require no or limited budgets, but have a significant indirect financial, economic and societal impact. Other programmes require greater funding, but in return have a positive direct impact on the lives of many people across the globe. This is the case of large-scale development programmes and partnerships run by DG DEVCO and DG NEAR, with the active contribution of the EEAS and of the local EU Delegations, such as the one in Tunisia with the Creative Europe Programme, a case that will be discussed in detail later this week.

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Cultural Diplomacy

European University Institute (EUI)

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