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Unpacking the cultural luggage of Europe

This article discusses the endeavour to search for common cultures, values, and histories that bond Europeans, beyond national borders.

In their book What is Europe?, Anna Triandafyllidou and Ruby Gropas seek to unpack “the cultural luggage that lies behind the notion of a European cultural or also political identity”:

As they argue, the notion of European culture raises numerous questions, with regards to the identification of what is shared and common among Europeans. When referring to European culture, observers frequently draw on the history the Enlightenment, and its related values, such as progress, freedom of expression, and tolerance. Some also mention the concepts of democracy, human rights, the notions of rationality and free will. Reference to culture ties our understanding of Europe with education and heritage institutions, such as universities, science academies, libraries and museums.

On 19 December 1954, the Council of Europe adopted the Cultural Convention as the basis for European cooperation in the fields of culture, education, youth and sport. Its objective was to further cultural collaborations to foster mutual understanding among European countries. The Council of Europe stressed the notion of ‘broader European heritage’ in order to detach culture from a national conception and to promote the understanding of a shared regional identity.

UNESCO adopted a similar approach, by focusing on the continent’s sub-regions: Southeast Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe. In doing so, UNESCO promoted an understanding of cultural heritage that transcends national boundaries, in order to create a bridge between people, practices, traditions and values on a regional and a sub-regional level. An interesting initiative is the route of Santiago de Compostela, that the Council of Europe set up in 1987 as the first European Cultural Itinerary and was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list:

This route from the French-Spanish border was – and still is – taken by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Some 1,800 buildings along the route, both religious and secular, are of great historic interest. The route played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. It remains a testimony to the power of the Christian faith among people of all social classes and from all over Europe.

(Source: UNESCO World Heritage, see below)

Tell us what you think:

Are there enough similarities between national cultures to suggest that a European culture, distinct from the more general Western one, exists?

© European University Institute
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Cultures and Identities in Europe

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