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The Political Context of 'Culture, Building Stone for Europe 2002'

Again, the political context of such a series of seminars around the theme 'Culture, Building Stone for Europe 2002' needs to be recalled, prior to making any critical evaluation of the Bruges seminar itself and to come to the concept of the Fifth Seminar held in Athens, June 3 - 5, 1994.

At first, there was enthusiasm as the European Community, later renamed the European Union (to underline the basic Conservative character), as Europe was growing in wealth and demonstrating to function between a mere ‘steel and coal’ unity.

The first serious doubt in the European Union as envisioned by the Maastricht treaty was cast by the Danish veto. It was a public referendum which expressed all of a sudden those doubts about a kind of Mega-Europe. No one had really expected this kind of jolt. Until then everything seemed smooth sailing.

Since the Danish veto, other doubts in the European Union have been expressed, but not as of yet really fully noticed. The most serious one is without a doubt the decision taken by the German constitutional court prior to the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty by German parliament. For the outcome of that constitutional decision marks several key issues, one being on how nation states will in future safeguard their interests by up-holding 'national identity' as a prime interest, and connected with that, how the German parliament has the ability to block the work of the Commission with demands for democratic legitimization before issuing decrees, directives or making new Euro-regulations. The court decision safeguards national 'sovereign' rights, even though it mistakenly makes them as being identical with democratic ones. In that sense the court's decision corrects a post-war tendency in the German constitution trying to draw a lesson out of National Socialism by wishing to prevent national interests from dominating once again the state and instead gave Germany even the right to pass on interests of security to international organisations like NATO or the United Nations. This implies that the question of the legal and political existence of Europe as a prime interest over and beyond national interests has become questionable. To what extent this will affect future European integration has to be seen.

Added to this are some recently articulated positions at regional level, that no longer express any unconditional will to integrate or to unite within a free Europe. Conditions are hardened or already reached agreements made to re-open for new negotiations; a complicated political terminology rules as a result at the top of European decision making processes. Demands to safeguard special interests are fuelled by recourse to scepticism about Europe. There is more dissension than consensus: the abject way of ruling. Even though everyone wishes to blame someone else or other for personal or own short-comings, rather than shouldering the responsibility for economic problems such as unemployment, this is only partly an explanation as to why the positive image of Europe has faded away.

One key issue involving decision making processes at European level with regards to cultural questions has been that until now little or even no attention, and hence time and money, was given to culture altogether. Yet everyone working in various fields from technology to regional planning comes more and more to the limits of what is possible, when culture is not taken into consideration. In the wake of first economic and then political integration, almost all of the resources went if not into agriculture, then into activities dealing with technology and thus economic convergences from a steel and coal oriented community to highly modernised 'industrial districts' striving on excellence and information technology. 1

The fact that culture is becoming an issue reflects really that subsistence levels are no longer attainable in any guaranteed manner by everyone, individuals, groups or even member states. The high rise of unemployment attests to that. Thus, while economic recession and political difficulties make it harder to sustain an unhindered drive towards full European integration, culture is needed more than ever before. The entry of the Scandinavian countries may help in this regard. There is, however, Norway's refutation. The price for having neglected the vital support of culture for Europe has to be paid now. That is why it appears the cultural question of European integration is also so localised. Inequalities become first noticeable at that level or within cities and in-between countryside's, old industrial districts and different regions. The cultural adaptation models so far advanced by nation states prove to be insufficient; a European integration process without cultural dimensions even more so. Neither does this prepare Europeans adequately for the changes ahead, nor are investments in specific activities meaningful if they are not supported, culturally speaking, in the long-run. It is like building a steel factory in Africa, but one which is never used and already an industrial ruin two years after constructions have been completed.

Money put in sand (or private pockets) contradicts specific culturally determined practises. That is why one can also be blinded by appeals to culture, when not seeing what it means in terms of specific interest groups making exploitive usage of certain integration mechanisms, including fashions of the times; in other words, ideas which are 'in' and which promise politicians an acquiescence of the majority of the population for the next five to ten years. This by-passing of democratic controls, the public awareness of what is going on, has brought Europe to a crisis point. For without culture, there neither exists a public structure in which it is possible to voice one's opinion as to what is going on, in order to give direction to disputes, nor will there be heard argumentation's which are recognisable as being 'reasonable' under all circumstances. Instead there exist many more problems of 'articulation' now a different levels because the inability of coping with the European system is becoming greater as everyone must face more problems at home without any promising solution in sight.

No wonder that all of a sudden the European consensus is no longer there, not even at the highest level. The break-out of the principle of consensus by Germany with regards to giving recognition of Croatia independent of what its European partners, fore mostly France thought, is but one, rather dangerous sign of negative developments. That marks also the debate on how to interpret the subsidiary principle. Nor are there many good ideas around on how to restructure European institutes to ensure that all European voices are being heard. The demand to upgrade the role of the European parliament would only make sense if it was linked to a real wish to have a properly elected European government, and not just a Commission linked to a Council of Ministers which virtually gives the nation states the final say. The decision by the German constitutional court, now potentially more than ever before with the European Court, reinforces that impression. The newly created 'Committee of Regions' is in such a context a weak corrective to what has been going on so far at European level, that is the neglect of culture. It remains to be seen to what extent the 'Committee of Regions' talks not only about economic affairs, that is ways and means of obtaining money from the Commission, but strives towards a fuller articulation of the cultural premises needed to be heeded if European integration is going to succeed.

However, the very creation of the 'Committee of Regions' means criticism of the dominant forms within Europe by which decisions have been reached up to now, including the appointment of the European Commissioner to follow Delors when the latter retires at the end of 1994. Critical reference is made in particular to the fact that the working languages of Europe seem to be dominated by only French and English, while European integration has not brought about equal opportunities for everyone to participate in. Whether or not this is true, or whether the newly created committee will contribute towards a positive process clarifying many of the cultural issues involved with experiences of ‘inequality’, remains to be seen. Right now much confusion reigns due to very different levels of competence in that committee, a mayor of a town sitting beside a minister president of one of the German 'Laender' or from the Flemish Community. There is the real fear that the work of the committee will simply be neutralised by the many conflicting forces inherent right now in as a diverse a Europe as it can be, despite all the internal and external constraints that go along with the need to remain competitive and to give adherence to the 'culture of consumption'. Alone this matter underlines why the question of culture in European life needs to be reformulated. It requires deeper and much wiser considerations that what seems to have been possible up to now. In that sense, the Flemish initiative is a political demand to improve upon this 'Committee of Regions'.

1 See here especially the paper by Phil Cooke in Workshop 2: 'Regional/Urban Planning and Culture' of the Fifth Seminar.

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