Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Cultural Capitals of Europe and European Union Today by Spyros Mercouris


I feel honoured and flattered that I have been invited by the Greek students of Imperial College, one of the ten best Universities of the world, to speak here about the European Cultural Capitals, and what is happening today to the EU. We know that Greece is going through a very difficult period. However, you who are young, well-educated and well trained should not give up and forget your home country. If an opportunity arises or when the situation begins to improve, you can return to Greece. You can be a young force with fresh ideas and values and you can contribute better with a new way of thinking towards the development of Greece and of course of Europe. Greece needs you.

The cry & the flame of Ancient Egypt and of the Middle East, passing through the filter of Greece became Logos (Speech) and Light”.

Greek Culture is the cradle of European civilization.

When Melina Mercouribecame Ministerof Culturein 1981, the first thing she asked was whenshe would meet with her​ counterparts of the European Community.

The European community, a commercial and economic community up to that point, had not given special attention to its cultural dimension and Cultural Ministers met informally.

Melina Mercouri gathered all the Community Culture Ministers together in order to submit to them the following question: “How is it possible for a Community which is deprived of its cultural dimension to grow?” and continued: “our role as Ministers of Culture is clear. Our responsibility a must. Culture is the soul of Society. Therefore, our foremost duty is to look at the foundations and nature of this Community. This does not mean that we should impose our ideas. On the contrary, we must recognise the diversity and the differences amongst the people of Europe. The determining factor of a European identity lies precisely in respecting this diversity with the aim of creating a dialogue between the cultures of Europe. It is time for our voice to be heard as loud as that of the technocrats. Culture, art and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce and the economy”.

So Melina proposed to designate each year a European city as a Cultural Capital of Europe. She wanted to create an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe and to give a cultural dimension to the community.

The proposal was unanimously accepted and the institution of European Cultural Capital was created, with Athens being chosen as the first Cultural Capital of Europe for the year 1985.

The event of Cultural Capitals of Europe should show the character of each city which is nominated, with its history, tradition and contemporary creativity.

Athens wanted the concept of the event of Cultural Capitals of Europe to be NOT a festival but a meeting place for discussion, communication, and exchange of ideas, thus creating a dialogue between the cultures of Europe, where artists, intellectuals and scientists would bring their work and efforts together towards the promotion of European thought.

And thus, the Cultural Capitals to be an event in which the citizens of Europe could be more than mere spectators. To participate, to understand, to feel, to define and shape new ideas and relationships in the process for a politically unified Europe.

We undertook the responsibility for the organization of the events, mobilizing all our resources and forming a small flexible (17 persons), stream-lined office for co-ordination. Within a very short time, only 8 months, from November 1984 to June 1985, and with only a low budget available of $5.000.000, Athens 1985 organized its program.

Athens managed, with the help of Jack Lang, Minister of Culture of France, to bring together the governments of the European Union. At the opening ceremony on the Acropolis on the 21st of June, there were present two Presidents (heads of State, Mitterrand and Sartzetakis), one Prime Minister, three Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Belgium, Germany, Ireland and ALL the then Ministers of Culture of the EU and of course, officials of the Commission.

Nearly all the European countries took part with cultural events of various kinds, such as, in the fine arts, exhibitions, music, dance, theatre, symposiums and so on. So, in this way creating an enthusiasm and the correct climate for a dialogue and exchange of ideas – not only with Europeans, but also with other countries like Russia, Japan, USA, Canada, etc.

In theatre we had wonderful performances by the best directors of the time. Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Peter Stein, Ingmar Bergman and others. In classical music we had great conductors like Mtsislav Rostropovich, Zubin Mehta & Leonard Bernstein. In opera we had Handel’s “Xerxes”, Verdi’s “Macbeth”, and Verdi’s “Othello”. In dance, Maurice Bejart; the London Contemporary Dance Theatre; the Kirov Ballet; “Les Grands Ballets Canadiens”; the Alvin Ailey Ballet and others. We had a rock festival with The Stranglers, Nina Hagen, The Clash. A jazz festival with: Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, etc. For exhibitions we had “German Expressionists”; “Le Bourgeois de Calais” by Rodin; Painters like: Delacroix, Edvard Munch, Kate Kowitz, etc.

All these performances along with the Greek events generated a tremendous cultural exchange and dialogue.

Athens mobilized her entire artistic and scientific community. We made the necessary infrastructures, new theatres, exhibition halls, art galleries, cultural developments, restoration & promotion of archaeological sites.

Many exhibitions were staged. Many of which marked the beginning of successful Greek exhibitions abroad: “Democracy and Cultural Education”, “Greece & the Sea”, “Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Art”, “Greek artists of recent decades”, “A Stage of Dionysus”, Athens European Affair – an architectural exhibition.

Young artists produced and performed experimental theatrical plays and many young artists of Fine Arts exhibited their work in the streets and squares of the city.

The Academy of Athens, Athens University, the National Art Gallery, the Archaeological Museum, the Byzantine Museum and the Benaki Museum and new venues contributed by hosting exhibitions and organizing symposiums.

Twelve major conferences were organized, such as: “Man in the era of technology”, “The Mediterranean throughout History”, “Democracy at the Dawn of the 21st Century”, “Economy & Culture”, etc.

Also, the construction, according to Ancient Technology and Methods, of the historical ship, the trireme which we named “Olympia” and the trade vessel which we named “Kyreneia”.

In total we presented 650 cultural events.

In 1990, a significant cultural event was created. Every year and for one month, one city of Europe, outside the Community would organize cultural events and have direct contact and dialogue with the nominated Cultural Capital of the year. So, a new type of cultural dialogue was initiated throughout Europe.

In Madrid in 1992, the Network of Cultural Capitals of Europe was formed. A big step was taken towards a more concrete, practical and close collaboration between all the Cultural Capitals. A vacuum had been filled and a link with the cities had been established.

The Network of Cultural Capitals and Cultural Months of Europe (ECCM) served both the Cultural Capitals and the European Union and has had a significant cultural impact and contributed to a deeper understanding of the diversity of European cultures.

From what has been said up to now, it is clear that the event was not only what a cultural city offers and does on its own, but the contribution of all the Cultural Capitals and Cultural Months together as a whole.

Milestones of the Network have been:

The non-governmental organisation, Poiein Kai Prattein “Create and Do” enriched the symposium with the exhibition “Kid’s Guernica”. Τhe basic idea is that children paint a peace mural on a canvas the same size as Picasso’s Guernica. Picasso is a giant. Giant of the arts but also a giant of thought. He could with a brush put on canvas all his artistic and political sentiments. Love, life, fear, death and barbarism. Guernica has become a symbol of the horror of war. Children and young people are also small giants of art. They paint spontaneously what they feel without being intimidated by various outside influences. The imagination of children and of young people is fresh. They dream. They have visions. They feel and live intensely pain and joy. Their hand runs freely to paint their truth. The result is fantastic. Full of colour and of expression. Children from Izmir, Turkey and Chios, Greece, painted together. They do not want war, they want peace. The dialogue between cultures starts with children.

Despite stressing the productive role of culture by the ECCM, Liverpool 2008 and Essen 2010 cultural capitals of Europe, both concentrated on strengthening economic impacts. In 2008 the City of Liverpool to a large extent achieved this goal. But values of culture, like strengthening social cohesion, bringing artists and people together, by expressing one’s shared common heritage and contemporary creativity while at the same time recognizing people’s diversity; were neglected. In 2010 Essen was the European Cultural Capital. It announced that it was representing 53 cities of the Ruhr. Essen also focused on economic aspects. However, as with Liverpool, business interests were of paramount importance.

But we insist that we must never forget that culture is horizontal, it is at the center of our political, social and economic life. This is the philosophy of the European Cultural Capitals.

The great mistake was that the new Cultural Capitals influenced by Liverpool and Essen, abolished the Network of Cultural Capitals of Europe. The linkage between Cultural Capitals has ceased.

The historical recordof the Institutionof CulturalCapitalshassimilaritieswith whatis happeningin the European Union today.

The concentration on economic impact has had negative repercussions on the visions and concepts of the European Cultural Capitals. The institution of the Cultural Capitals is melting down. In the same way as are the ideals and values for a unified Europe. This hurts.

Marseille 2013 has a good program. Marseille is a hope.

During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the great economist, Maynard Keynes declared: “the best time for the politicians to impose strict fiscal measures is during a period of development and prosperity, as this will keep the countries’ wealth well-balanced and healthy; and not to do so at a time of economic slackness and depression as this will simply push the economy into a downward direction”.

Roosevelt heeded Keynes’ advice, initiated the “New Deal” and embarked on a governmental program of social policy such as building roads, railways and big public works generally. He stimulated the economy and created new jobs. With this policy of revival, by 1933 the USA had started to pull itself out of the Great Depression which had commenced in 1929.

Milton Friedman, the famous economist and the Austrian economist, Frederick Hayek, suggested exactly the opposite of Keynes. Friedman and Hayek, both neo-liberals were believers in monetarism and austerity, which was introduced in thesocio-economic lifein Europe and still continues to be.

The EuropeanUnion (EU) today represents 28 countries.However, the EU has not evolved into a political federation, but with the Maastricht Treaty, is focused on spreading a single free market where people,goods,services and capital are supposed to move freely and regulate the market. But this is an illusion.

Nowadays, the economic reputation of Europe depends and is made on the trust of the markets, the rating agencies, spreads, hedge funds, IMF, ECB, etc.

During the last decades, politics have been trapped and forced into a new-liberal speculative logistic economy and so have lost their distinctive way and orientation.

Nominal money has become a product and an object of speculation. And we see during this crisis, the rich have become richer. According to the Forbes List, in the last 12 months we now have 1,426 billionaires that is an increase of 210. Their fortunes have increased from 4.6 trillion to 5.4 trillion dollars.

The dominant EU countries with the severe guidance of Germany follow an economic monetary policy which has pushed the weaker countries into decline, recession, depression, despair and poverty. This is called the policy of “stabilization!”

This policy has brutally affected, in particular, the middle and working classes, who are the backbone of society, and so in this way they have created an enormous social and economic gap between people and the policies of the centers of economic powers. This is serious and dangerous; the gap must be bridged.

The economic crisis has pushed the EU countries into a negative downward economic spiral not felt since World War Two. The reason is that this economic crisis is above all moral, social and political.

We live in a time that is dominated by cynicism, vulgarity, mistrust, insecurity, corruption, greed, fear, terror and in which the pursuit of money corrupts and changes the characters of people.

The European Union with the economic measures it has imposed has come to be seen by many Europeans as a threat to themselves.

Many countries of the EU like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Slovenia and Cyprus are in turmoil and suffer very much from this situation.

Greece in 2010 found herself on the edge of bankruptcy and in danger of leaving the Eurozone. There was a dilemma for Greece, either to sign up to a memorandum demanded by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and IMF [i.e., the Troika], which would have been severe; or to declare bankruptcy. Obviously the decision by our government was to avoid bankruptcy and sign the memorandum. Greece tries very hard to chase tax evaders and deal with corruption, to open up closed professions, to make reforms and structural changes to the administration and to encourage investment. The politics of austerity that emerged from the Troika’s memorandum has been more than cruel and has destabilised society. The Troika cut salaries and pensions by 40-50%, resulting in economic slow-down. Unemployment soared to 27% of the population with youth unemployment now at 61%. This is outrageous. The young have the right to education, work and expectation. The old have the right to comfort and security. Austerity has become the order of the day; it has had a depressing effect and driven the country to stagnation. The Troika, the EU, and especially Germany, which is the dominate power, must understand and accept that Greek society has exhausted its endurance and limits and it is not possible to have more restrictions and austerity.

Christine Lagarde, the President of the IMF has admitted that the economic measures that were imposed on Greece by the Troika were extremely harsh and severe. The result was that the scale of the recession exceeded every prediction.

Now let us look at Cyprus. Cyprus is in fact a banking problem. It is said that Cypriot National Economic Growth is 20 times smaller than the banking deposits made by foreign investors, to whom the Cypriot Banks had pledged tax exemptions and other facilities; the banks are also criticized for money laundering. The EU, on the insistence of Wolfgang Schäuble has made a haircut of all deposits in Cyprus of over 100.000 Euros by 40% or even more. Also wages and pensions are being cut, so once more people will pay. Cyprus can be a model for other banks in other countries The Prime Minister of Luxembourg objected this very clearly.

On the 13th of March 2013, the European Parliament voted down the 8th February proposed budget of the EU for the period 2014 - 2020. Instead the Parliament asked that the policy of austerity should change.

Angela Merkel, however, has said that it is vitally important to pursue a policy of austerity.

The uncompromising attitude of Schäuble continues. He insists on the policy of hard austerity whether it works or not. It is inconceivable to him that his economic policy can be wrong and so he forces and drags other EU members along his chosen path that leads to recession, despondency and rage!

The six monthly meetings of the IMF, as well as, those of the Ministers of Finance and of the heads of the 20 biggest banks in the world, essentially refuted the policy and strategy of austerity supported by Germany.

13 countries of the EU are in the red. The US tries to persuade the Germans that their obsession with fiscal discipline cannot work. But the main concerns of chancellor Merkel are the general elections that will take place in September.

She wants to win the election to strengthen Germany’s fiscal policy. This has another negative impact because in the weaker states that are suffering and denying the German imposition nationalistic phenomena have appeared and developed.

The new budget will be voted in July.So let’s see what the European Parliament will vote.

Another reason for the economic and political problems for the European Union is the possible departure of Britain from the EU. Britain has always been a difficult partner. Britain refused to be in the Eurozone. Britain has reservations about having a common EU foreign policy. Britain is a nuclear power, it is a member of the UN Security Council, it has strong relations with commonwealth countries, and it has ties with the USA. The Americans do not want Britain to leave the EU, it considers the UK a bridge between herself and Europe and a representative of American opinion.

Today, developed countries of the world form a global village. Never in the history of mankind has there ever existed such easy contact. Each country and each continent is in constant communication. But it is doubtful if such communication promotes a straightforward and constructive dialogue between peoples and civilizations.

Hostility and excessive competitiveness breed conflict and aggravation. Religious fanaticism, nationalism, and racism are spreading.The problemsof the minorities and immigrantsare growing, unemploymentis on the rise. Nuclear threats, wars and localrebellionsare on the increase and without an end in sight.

Europe should be aware of this situation and with its dynamism and cultural skills could play an important role in global understanding and contribute to aconstructive dialogue between cultures which is so necessary.

In this current crisis, Germany wants more Europe. Of course more Europe, but not a Europe based on a monetary system. But rather a Europe based on culture, democratic values and people’s participation.

Nobody can imagine a Europe without her culture. Nobody can conceive of a unified Europe without her multiple identities.

But there is a crisis in the very idea of Europe.

This crisis can be explained by the way in which the idea of Europe has been betrayed and that the word “Europe” has for many people stopped meaning their shared home and cultural space.

Throughout the history of its existence Europeans have been aware that they share what are recognisably the same cultural values, which reflect the reality that they all belong to one civilisation.

This of course is not to deny that Europe is a civilisation of many different nations and people, each with their language and history, their own specific characteristics and their own achievements, of which each has a right to be proud. Any European construction has to take account of this rich diversity, which is a source of strength and not one of weakness.

To deny, however, that Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire were also Europeans at the same time as they were Italian, English, German and French, is to deny the truth.

To admit this truth is also to recognise that Europe’s true foundation and true centre is in the cultural achievement that produced the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire.

Jean Monnet, the arch Europeanist, envisioned a United States of Europe. Monnet said, “Europe, will not be built all at once as a complete structure, but will emerge slowly from concrete achievements, creating a solidarity between Member States and he declared that he would begin with culture as the foundation of European integration.

But what is culture?

Speech, poetry, literature, theatre, music, dance, fine arts, architecture, science and care of the environment are expressions of culture, they create culture. However, the meaning of culture is much wider and deeper. Civilizations are formed by what man has said and done since thousands of years ago and which, up to now, have been accepted and absorbed by societies and peoples and have been added to in their traditions, habits, thoughts, creations, actions and memories.

Culture absorbs from the past, moulds the present and shapes the future.

Culture exists in all our doings, in all our activities. It is knowledge, education, behavior, freedom of expression, constructive dialogue, responsibility, understanding and respect for the diversity and the opinion of others.

With the EU economic policy, no development canbeachieved andhope for abetter life will fade. Every spiritual quest and the joy of life will be pushed aside.Financial programs and decisionsmust alwaysconsiderthe human factor.

This is a protest and demand for more humanity and more culture.

A system, such as the current one, which ignores this position and these feelings, cannot in the long term survive.

People must be made awareof the needfor a change. But to do this there must be understanding, enlightenmentand courage.

To develop, we must adapt ourselves to reality. To use the means that contemporary conditions offer to us and to function in a way that we can convince others in the importance and power of culture, for the development of societies, and to convince them that culture is not an abstract idea that occupies only the intellectuals.

We must appeal to people from all walks of life. We have to ask the thinker, the writer, the artist and all citizens to give answers and a new meaning and purpose to the conditions and demands of our time.

When the level of culture, education and intellectual life rises, governments and citizens will understand their problems more easily. They will evaluate their problems better and will face life with greater understanding and show greater tolerance for the thinking and acting of other people.

It is absolutely necessary to move into a new way of thinking, into a new era where education and culture will have a central role in politics, society and the economy.

Man and nature, never set problems that they cannot solve. Whatever happens man always goes forward.

Throughout the ages, mankind has consistently sought progress and renewal. In the long history of human civilization there has been a whole series of renaissances, each one making its contribution to moral and intellectual regeneration.

Now we are taking huge strides in the development of technology, medicine and space exploration. In medicine – DNA – and all that this entails. In space exploration, the well named pioneer space rocket, the curiosity.

As the scientists are opening up new horizons, so, surely, the philosophers, thinkers and political statesmen will help us to find new standards and values for a more fair evolution of society and to the betterment of the quality of life.

It is the cultural gifts of music, art, literature and science, which have made us what we are, and the beings which we shall become. To know our true and worthy place on earth and our eventual way to the stars that await us – this is our destiny!

The new way of thinking, the new mind-set seems to guide us to wisdom with virtue and action with knowledge.


Spyros Mercouris

Director & Coordinator of the first

Cultural Capital of Europe “Athens 1985”

Ex-Honorary President of the

Network of Cultural Capitals of Europe

Imperial College - London

13 May 2013


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