Culture and the making of Europeans in a time of austerity

European identity is neither a fixed concept "nor is it immune from the return of hatred among nations".

    Culture and the making of Europeans in a time of austerity
    It is paradoxical that reducing subsidies for the cultural sector or education should be the most proficient way to re-launch some unsteady economies [Getty Images]

    The land of Europe is often internationally regarded as the place where high culture lies and naturally and intrinsically flourishes. This was partially not only due to the quality of its (largely public) education sector, but also because of the specific nature and genesis of this fascinating continent. 

    Europe itself is, in fact, a very old and interconnected concept dating back to, at least, the Greek-Roman world, and one which has crossed centuries, kingdoms and emperors. It was formed by a web of exchanges and encounters, a number of revolutions which influenced each other and the constant presence of influential thinkers and writings who traversed national borders. 

    Early last year, the Ministers for Culture from the various European Union member states proudly produced a "Decalogue for Europe of Culture" which was published in the pages of the International Herald Tribune. They stated that culture was at the heart of the construction of Europe. It should not therefore be sacrificed as it also "contributes to the affirmation of the European identity". 

    Cultural exchanges

    There is, in fact, a direct link between Europe's inner culture and a form of identity shared by many Europeans (but this identity should be porous and not overlooked, as some wrongly suggest to undermine this concept, because Europe would have a real meaning only if all its citizens were very similar to each other). 

    Along with the cultural, learning and "socialisation" exchanges between nations, such as the scheme for the contemporary mobility of university students, the very popular Erasmus Programme, this "culture" made a valuable contribution to the building of a sense of common belonging for the populations of Europe. 

    However, despite the politicians' Decalogue, many national governments are slashing some of their culture budgets. In truth, it appears that EU countries do not seem to be able to agree on even a relatively small overall Euro-budget (if compared, for example, to the US). 

    The next European summit might indeed sensibly reduce the EU 2014-2020 spending. This will also have a regrettable impact for culture as well as the mentioned "educational" and social mobility of Europeans. Is this the dreamed common vision of Europe? 

    This proves, however, that some more complex long-term plans and structures could only be envisaged by the most committed of pro-Europeans (but the related question would be how we will produce them in the future). 

    After the riots and protests across European cities, and in an age where financial plans seem the key, economy and markets the watchwords, and austerity the new fashion, we should all wonder if these are the best ways to make a full recovery from the current drift. 

    It is paradoxical that reducing subsidies for the cultural sector or education should be the most proficient way to re-launch some unsteady economies - and rather than starting with a serious reduction of some "wastefulness" of state, and EU, money. 

    In such a context, in order to produce a market-led culture, universities are at times deprived of their (financial) strengths and (cultural) search of a more "authentic" and durable knowledge. As the Council of the Defence of British Universities recently put it: "Knowledge is money and growth is elusive, powerful forces are bending the university to serve short-term, primarily pragmatic, and narrowly commercial ends." 

    Given the weak prospect of any public funding to the arts and humanities, questions must be also raised about the state of European artistic and intellectual productions, and the preservation of this heritage for the future. Few politicians seem to consider what the future impacts of this strategy will be and what will be left after such financial turmoil. 

    Research and innovation will, again and soon, cross the Atlantic or move quickly far from the Western hemisphere towards the rising global powers. All this should instead be the key in the fight against recession and unpredictable markets, along with promoting real competitiveness on a global scale. Better informed and educated citizens would be more a talented and skilled workforce too. 

    Interrelated histories

    What often impressed foreign observers was not only the deep richness, brightness of these European cultures and their diversity, but also their many similar values. These interrelated histories, cultures and identities make Europe and Europeanness so distinctive and appealing too. 

    "Research and innovation will, again and soon, cross the Atlantic or move quickly far from the Western hemisphere towards the rising global powers."

    Even countries like Great Britain, where Euroscepticism is, at times, active, and where Europe is wrongly portrayed by some media (see the Leveson report), culture, architecture and literature are often full of "European" interactions. 

    The same very beautiful quarter, called the Founder's Building, of the academic institution, where I currently work, Royal Holloway, University of London, was clearly inspired by a continental European castle. A relief on its external façade pays homage to some milestones of European and western literature like Homer, Shakespeare and Dante. Is this a British, a Latin, or possibly a more evident European wide cultural heritage and identity? 

    Policymakers should, nonetheless, realise that this European identity is not a fixed concept, nor is it immune from the return of hatred among nations. The process of economic and political integration which led to the current EU framework certainly helped to build "Europeans" as we know them today, and after the tragedies of two world wars. 

    However, these times of austerity challenge this specific cosmopolitan identity too, and with unpredictable future consequences. The potential implementation of cuts to the Erasmus Programme is indeed another remarkable example. This latter certainly represents one of the main achievements in the past 25 years of Europe's life. It has genuinely created generations of keen contemporary "European citizens". 

    If there is today in Europe a common understanding of neighbouring traditions and many collective values, it is also due to a programme that was named after the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam - unsurprisingly a promoter of common sense, learning and tolerance.  

    A successful EU political elite and national governments should rightly work hard to fix economy and public deficits. But only a short-sighted policy would push culture, knowledge and its own (often cross-national) citizens in a corner. 

    Markets certainly need stability and troubled banks need rescue plans. However, in order to act like a world power, and with a single (and heard) voice, Europe requires ideas, "brains" and surely, committed Europeans. 

    Andrea Mammone teaches modern European history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has extensively published on transnational movements, the European far right and Italian politics. He has also been a media commentator for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, BBC, and Voice of America, among others. 

    Follow him on Twitter: @Andrea_Mammone

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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