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National Cultural Diplomacies in Europe

Some European countries like France, Germany or the UK have a long tradition of cultural diplomacy.

The real challenge to the development of a European strategy for international cultural relations lies in the internal diversity of the EU, a quasi-federal entity that brings together a number of national identities, national and minority cultures, different languages, and different histories. Indeed, the EU is characterized by its diversity and perhaps less by its unity. There is no single European identity or culture, but rather there are European identities and cultures. Thus, by definition a European cultural diplomacy strategy has to come to terms with the centrifugal forces acting within it.

In addition, several European countries, particularly those that have a colonial past, encompass a cultural component in their foreign policy. Perhaps France was the forerunner in this domain as we can find the notion of cultural diplomacy used already in the 19th century. However, other countries – notably the United Kingdom and Germany – have developed national cultural institutes each with a network of branches scattered across the globe. While teaching English, French or German as a foreign language has been an important and convenient vehicle for the development of national cultural institutes, the British Council, the Institut Français and the Goethe Institut currently develop a whole range of cultural and educational activities that belong to the wider area of international cultural relations.

UK Cultural Diplomacy: the British Council

The British Council was founded in 1934 and opened its first overseas branch in 1938. From the outset, the role of the British Council was to develop international cultural relations that would promote mutual knowledge and understanding between the UK and foreign countries and would “lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy, whatever for the moment that policy may be and from whatever political conviction it may spring” (British Council, Annual Report 1940-1941).

After World War II, the British Council developed further and its mission became twofold: to promote a wider knowledge of the UK and the English language abroad, and to develop closer cultural relations between the UK and other countries (see the Royal Charter setting up the mission of the British Council in 1940).

Institutionally speaking, the British Council is an executive non-departmental public body, a public corporation (in accounting terms) and a registered charity. It receives a government grant in aid that covers about 1/3 of its activities, but is operationally independent from the UK government. Given the importance that English language has gained at the global level, the British Council generates two thirds of its income from teaching English, administering exams overseas and from building partnerships and developing projects.

It is governed by an Executive Board that is responsible for the overall strategy, direction and management of the organisation. The Board of Trustees are the guardians of the British Council’s purpose and are ultimately accountable for the organisation.

The British Council has branches in more than 100 countries all over the world, from the Americas, through Africa and the Middle East, all the way to South-East Asia.

It is organised in different departments of activity that, in addition to those related to teaching English and managing exams for English as a foreign language, deal with a wide variety of activities in the Arts, Education and Digital Innovation sectors. Activities in the Arts promote exchanges and cooperation and support both British and international artistic talent through skills development programmes and cultural policies aimed to generate a positive impact also on the creative industries. In the Education and Society area, the British Council focuses on transforming national education systems, helping build inclusive societies and creating more opportunities for young people, for example by setting up joint educational programmes and student exchange programmes, fostering the international mobility of both British and foreign students. The existence of a Digital Partnerships and Innovation department proves the important role played today by digital technologies. Each department has its own advisory group which ensures that the British Council works in strong connection with the relevant professional sectors.

According to the British Council’s Annual Report, over the period 2016-2017, its work reached out to and engaged over 65 million people directly and some 731 million overall through online activities, broadcasts and publications.

In sum, the British Council engages into a multi-faceted policy that embraces the wider area of cultural and artistic activities and industries as well as education. Its work is global in its outlook and embraces a wide range of sectors that might qualify as culture. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the British Council’s sponsoring body (even if as stated above the national institute of culture raises a significant amount of its own revenue) and hence it is the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that answers the Parliament with regard to it policies, operations and performances. In other words, the British Council enjoys a significant degree of liberty but is also closely connected to the foreign policy of the UK, as was stated already in the Royal Decree of 1940.

It is clear that this national grounding of the British Council could create frictions with the national cultural institutes of other countries as well as with actions at the European level, at least in theory. However, so far, practice seems to confirm otherwise as the BC has been a champion in several European projects under the auspices of the European Union National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC).

French Cultural Diplomacy : Alliance Française and the Institut Français

The external cultural action of France finds its roots in the Ancien Régime in the 17th and 18th century when culture and diplomacy were already closely linked. This same tradition was continued in the 19th century when cultural action followed the diplomatic efforts. It was as early as 1883 that the Alliance Française, initially named as the “National Association for the teaching of the French language in the colonies and abroad” (L’association nationale pour la propagation de la langue française dans les colonies et à l’étranger) was created by Pierre Foncin, professor of Geography at the University of Bordeaux, and the diplomat Paul Cambon. In 1886 the public role of the Alliance Française was recognised and in 1889 the first branches were opened in India and Australia. The mission of the Alliance was to teach the French language and spread the French culture in the colonies and in third countries. The Alliance Française used to be divided between the central office in Paris, and independent franchise-run branches in more than 800 locations in 132 countries. The Alliance Française has been raising its own resources through the teaching of French as a foreign language relying on state subsidies only for a marginal proportion of its budget. It is estimated that nearly half a million students around the world learn French in one of the Alliance Française centres at any one time.

Following these early times, the French Association for the Expansion of Artistic Exchange (Association française d’expansion et d’échanges artistiques) the first formal cultural diplomacy institution, was launched in 1922 and was replaced later by the French Association for Artistic Action (Association française d’action artistique, AFAA).

Although the French cultural diplomacy strategy had an early start, it was only at the beginning of the 21st century that its administrative governance was overhauled and given a new imprint. Indeed it was only in 2006 that Culturesfrance was created through the fusion of two associations, the AFAA and the ADPF (Association pour la diffusion de la pensée française). Culturesfrance has operated under the joint auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Communication and of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the mission to develop and support French cultural action in the world.

After this, the Alliance Française was reorganized in 2007. The international relations branch of the old foundation became the Alliance Française Foundation, while the Paris School and Tradition was renamed as the Alliance Française Paris Ile-de-France.

Last but not least, the Institut français, which was launched in January 2011 to replace Culturesfrance, has the double mandate to defend the freedom of expression and the respect of diversity in a globalising world, while promoting French culture in the world. In so doing, it of course takes into account the new possibilities provided by information and communication technologies. The Institute functions under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and aims to contribute to France’s diplomatic influence by reinforcing the dialogue with foreign cultures in a spirit of listening, partnership and openness. Its main activites are developed by three departments: Collectivités territoriales, which forges partnerships with large cities and French regions, in collaboration with the French cultural network abroad; the pole of Résidences, which encourages the mobility of artists (foreign artists in France and French artists abroad); and a branch that develops projects at the EU level. Last but not least there is a branch called Seasons which develops specific events, anniversaries and festivals.

French cultural diplomacy can rely on both the network of 96 French institutes in the world and on over 800 Alliances Françaises (of which 307 are under the auspices of the Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs (Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères).

The Goethe-Institut

The Goethe-Institut is a non-profit German cultural association which runs 159 institutes around the world to promote the study of the German language, foster knowledge about Germany by providing information on its culture, society and politics, and encourage cultural exchanges and relations with other countries.
The Institute and its branches around the world collaborate with public and private cultural institutions, the federal states, local authorities, and businesses.

The Goethe-Institut , which between 1959 and 1960 took over all the German cultural institutes abroad, has evolved following key historical moments for the country. For example, following the youth unrest of 1968 it adjusted its programme to include socio-political issues and avant-garde art. Its influence increased when in 1970 cultural work involving dialogue and partnership was declared the third pillar of the German foreign policy. In 1976 it became independent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, it expanded intensively its activities in Eastern Europe and created numerous new branches in the former Communist countries.

© European University Institute
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