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Abstract

Tomorrow’s world poses multiple threats to Europe’s most fundamental values. In the cultural and
creative fields as much as in politics, value wars and battles for sense-making are already being fiercely fought. It is time for the European Union (EU) to shift from cultural resilience to cultural resistance and to creatively support freedom fighting movements worldwide on behalf of ‘Resistant Liberalism’. The new enlargement wave is an opportunity for Europeans to widen the scope of EU competences in external cultural action. The European Parliament should initiate a new phase of EU foreign policy by supporting qualified majority voting (QMV) for external cultural matters; encouraging fresh thinking on the cultural and creative dimensions of systemic climate, natural, technological, and societal transformations; and advocating for the creation of a European Culture Facility (or EU external action agency).

Introduction

‘Europe usually forgets it is Europe’, wrote Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.5 Although the European integration project is a cultural endeavour seeking unity in diversity, I argue in this article that Europeans have not yet decided to develop an effective common approach to cultural relations both within the European Union (EU) itself and in their external action. Therefore, the very idea of European integration is at risk and, with it, the project of the EU as a credible international power and as an attractive society.

This article looks at the roots and recent episodes of this cultural and foreign policy interplay. It then identifies priorities to rethink the cultural dimensions of the European project to make the EU fit for the twenty-first century. Considering climate and biodiversity challenges (Kruger, 2023) and the rise of authoritarianism, resilience will be necessary but not sufficient. The proposed approach relies on the concept of an intentional, value-based, non-violent, creative, and empowering resistance and freedom fighting policy worldwide: a ‘Resistant Liberalism’ – the term coined for this article – as the main avenue to harmonious and sustainable coexistence among humans and with other forms of life on Earth.

Just as Narendra Modi’s India smartly (and paradoxically) pictured itself as the ‘Yoga nation’, the EU is perfectly able to brand itself as the world cultural partner of freedom fighting resistance movements that find themselves under violent threat from dominating illiberal regimes and climate change deniers.

From resilience to resistance

Recent strategic foresight studies (such as Parkes, Kirch, & Dinkel, 2021) provide a useful framework for looking at the potential role of culture in societies, states, and markets.

For author Giovanni Grevi, year 2022 was a turning point that saw the crystallisation of several trends already in play: the economic rise of China, Russia’s responses to US and Western ambitions, and global warming and the failure of climate action (Grevi, 2023). Grevi puts forward the scenario of a ‘regressive world’: the combination of catastrophic consequences of climate change, economic crises, and more conflicts and humanitarian disasters, exacerbated by power competition in fragmented world politics.6 In this context, even if the Sustainable Development Goals remain a valid compass, it is unlikely they will be achieved or even taken seriously by authoritarian regimes.

The regressive world scenario is not the only one available, nor is it anywhere near the worst one. While Francis Fukuyama spoke of the end of history, others now speak of the end of globalisation (Escande, 2023). The bloc logic stands in contradiction to the idea of ever-increasing transnational flows between states and societies that allow cultural diversity to flourish freely in large urban hubs thanks to unleashed creative mobility. That very idea nourished the project of ‘EU international cultural relations’ back in the early 2000s, when there was still hope for a multilateral order ruled by shared values and norms. Some authors were optimistic (or naïve) enough to suggest that cultural relations would lead nations and people to ‘global cultural citizenship’ (European Union, 2014). This prospect has faded away.

In the cultural field, it took the EU more than a decade, following strong joint German–British lobbying, to adopt an EU policy framework in 2016 to guide common external cultural relations. The same year, Brexit happened, leaving the project of a strong cultural EU orphaned by one of its strongest advocates. Up to 2022, the results of EU international cultural relations were very limited, mostly because of a lack of leadership from Member States and weak EU human resources in headquarters and in EU delegations.

Since 2019, EU foreign policy has been largely dominated by the ‘language of power’ and the Global Gateway, there by implicitly neglecting, along a non-decision logic, trust-based relationships with other societies and communities. The language of power may have sounded like a ‘language of fear’ instead of a language of hope and confidence in the ears of EU partners, particularly in former colonies and in societies developing their own non-European cultural models.

While the EU had a policy and a toolbox at its disposal to be culturally active globally, Member States and EU institutions have decided not to use their common cultural potential to its fullest. European governments have invested in international cultural relations through other multilateral or transnational channels, including UNESCO (which recently welcomed the United States back in), the Council of Europe, ad hoc alliances (ALIPH –International Alliance for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Areas, ICCROM – International Centre for the Study and Preservation of Cultural Property ), and global networks (IFACCA – International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies, UCLG – United Cities and Local Governments). In the wake of Brexit, France and Germany, each of which had a wide international network of cultural centres, have preferred to rely on their national institutions and channels to develop their own cultural relations. Joint German–French (Goethe Institute/Institut français) initiatives (such as shared offices or joint support to EU film festivals) took off, but they remained limited and focused on non-strategic partner countries. Other states with smaller means (Spain, but also Slovenia, Malta, and Belgian subnational entities) have also preferred to maintain their own branding approach. In parallel, the British Council, while managing to keep a seat in the EU National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC), has developed its own initiatives on climate action around COPs.

Recent years have seen the emergence of more acute conflicts over values and sense-making around multicultural coexistence (culture war debates, decolonial struggles, Brexit-related rhetoric), climate action, and the role of ecology (Roy, 2019, Ferdinand, 2019, Latour, 2019, Orbie et al, 2023, Ainger, 2023).

Considering that ‘the share of the world population living in (closed or electoral) autocracies jumped from 46% in 2012 to 72% in 2022’ (Grevi, 2023: 125), one may wonder if the current European approach to international cultural relations, in support of the 2022 Mondiacult conference proclaiming culture as a global public good, will be enough to resist mounting threats to fundamental freedoms worldwide.

The widening internal–external gap

The 2024 European elections will be an important test for pro-EU integration political forces against illiberal political groups. Since the 2016 Brexit vote, Euroscepticism and Euro-fatigue have not decreased in EU Member States’ societies or within institutions and governments themselves.

The low level of ambition among EU experts, such as the ‘Group of Twelve’ commissioned by the German and French governments to conceptualise EU institutional reform, confirms the dominance of Euro-defiance. In the current context, the Group of Twelve now considers federalists as naïve utopians (Franco-German Working Group on EU Institutional Reform, 2023). It suggests a cautious and pragmatic multi-layered governance system for the future EU, a parallel to the ‘European Political Community’ initiative. Both reflect the EU’s current challenges (Parkes, 2023), new bloc logics (with Hungary and Slovakia aligned with Russia on the Ukraine conflict), and the absence of a deep cultural interpretation of the European integration project.

The 2024 European elections will be an important test for pro-EU integration political forces against illiberal political groups. Since the 2016 Brexit vote, Euroscepticism and Eurofatigue have not decreased in EU Member States’ societies or within institutions and governments themselves.

Eurobarometers and elections show that feelings of Europeanness and EU belonging are unstable. Temporary solidarity towards Ukraine has not dissolved divisions over Russia (Zerka, 2023). The enthusiasm shown at the 2022 Eurovision contest does not make a common EU external cultural
policy, nor does the appointment in 2019 of a Commissioner in charge of protection of the ‘European way of life’ or the launch of the New European Bauhaus. The need identified by Gérard Bouchard for new European myths mixing national and transnational references and roots to strengthen the emergence of a united European society has not been addressed by national political leaders (Bouchard, 2016).

Europe is becoming increasingly diverse culturally, but not in a harmonious way. The (aesthetic, linguistic, religious, ethnic, territorial) diversity of European societies, and more specifically large European cities, mirrors the world’s cultural diversity, but it is not explicitly reflected in either internal or EU external action.

One could speak of a ‘Europe-world’, to paraphrase the wording of ‘Afrique-Monde’ used by African thinkers about Africa (Mbembe, Sarr, 2017). However, the management of cultural diversity in Europe is not developing homogeneously and at the same pace across the whole European territory: pessimists and nationalists would even say that culture wars and conflicts over values still very much divide European societies. That would explain why there has not been enough exchange among EU Member States and cultural sectors in Europe about ways to transform these differences into relevant content for ambitious common external cultural policies.

Believers in the EU project have focused on the development of Europe-wide media and journalism (cases in point are Arte and Euronews, boosted by exceptional post-Brexit measures in 2017, and other attempts are being made by the European Cultural Foundation and its partners). It is to be hoped that these media will be effective and lead to the emergence of new European heroes and symbolic figures who stimulate, reflect, and nurture citizens’ imaginaries and emotions. In that regard, Netflix might have been paradoxically more influential than all the other initiatives (including the valuable LUX Prize, the Europa Cinema network, and other audio-visual initiatives) in the absence of a convincingly attractive and technologically fit European cinema industry operating at a continental and global scale.

However, the – at times – successful management of cultural diversity within European societies has not been fully reflected in the design of common EU external cultural policies or in the management of migration and asylum, resulting in an EU credibility and coherence deficit worldwide. European former colonial powers are only starting to acknowledge the internal cultural and identity damage of their colonial adventures. In today’s European diplomacy, national diplomats and European Commissioners (usually white, and with a Caucasian family background) who negotiate on behalf of their country or the Union’s institutions rarely emphasise publicly abroad that they represent the cultural diversity of European societies. How can the diverse array of EU citizens identify with these representatives?

Furthermore, the EU is often criticised for applying double standards. Unequal treatment of cultural minorities who have ancestors in former European colonies, racism, and ethnic discrimination are still serious challenges in European societies (FRA, 2023). Such injustice does not go unnoticed among diasporas and in partner countries. In the field of migration, the sudden and well-funded welcoming of Ukrainian refugees was in deep contrast to the harshening of migration and asylum policies towards Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and African migrants. There are, of course, success stories, but the European migration narrative is, overall, broken. And Fortress Europe prevails.

How can European states encourage the cultural diversity potential of the societies they rule, to ensure freedom within and between them; and how can this diversity and freedom potential be cultivated and encouraged beyond borders to tackle global challenges through dialogue and cooperation?

In the creative climate action sector, the key initiative taken by the last Commission is the New European Bauhaus. The European Green Deal initiative has been very much a technological and economic reform, with almost no cultural or creative content. One may wonder if the Green Deal, not speaking of its lowered ambitions, is too white and too technocratic.

The 2022 European Council on Foreign Relations report on European sentiment concludes with valuable points about the challenge of internal cultural diversity and multiculturalism in Europe, and the limits of the EU integration project such as it is (Zerka, 2022). It would be useful to pursue this further and to (re)define and question the notion of ‘European sentiment’ from a deeper perspective, taking more precisely into account the values and priorities (and not just the opinions or views at a given time) of all cultural communities (including minorities from former colonies and various migration waves) to imagine what relevant and legitimate external cultural relations should look like. In that regard, the cultural dimensions of several interconnected thematic areas will deserve investment in the future as freedom-fighting movements: technological transformations, ecology and climate, post- and decolonisation, gender-related freedoms, and migrations.

The key question for European policymakers in the years to come could thus be formulated as follows: how can European states encourage the cultural diversity potential of the societies they rule, to ensure freedom within and between them; and how can this diversity and freedom potential be cultivated and encouraged beyond borders to tackle global challenges through dialogue and cooperation?

Resistant Liberalism

Planet Earth has entered a new era (some call it the Anthropocene, capitalocene, or plantationocene), in which we are now seeing only the beginning of multi-faceted transformations. New eras call for new thinking and for the crafting of new concepts and new approaches. The concept proposed by the author of this article for the European Liberal Forum to address current challenges in the short term and at the EU level is ‘Resistant Liberalism’.

Political, social, and economic liberalism is at the core of the EU project and focuses on freedom as the central value in human societies. Resistance is the behaviour, attitude, and strategy now required by defenders of freedom to respond to ongoing, urgent, and threatening climate, biodiversity, security, health, cultural divides, and other global challenges. Like any city under siege, Fortress Europe will not be able to resist without support and trust from outside friends and without alliances with strangers. It will also need to be united to resist. This concluding part presents five recommendations for developing the EU’s Resistant Liberalism through global freedom fighting, with external cultural action at its core.

  1. The European Parliament could commission research and debates to develop a new lexicon to stimulate and feed resistance initiatives for all forms of freedoms as new European myths, inspired by thinkers and doers already in action or renowned for their past achievements. Resistance movements would engage constructively in value wars and battles over meaning, and against disinformation and anti-science movements. Examples of concepts and terms to be further discussed, developed, and potentially promoted in policies could include Europe–world (Europe as a smaller version of the world’s cultural diversity), resistant liberalism, enabling power (Helly, 2017), creative strategies, cultural rights, spiritual and inter-faith dialogue, decolonial ecology (Ferdinand, 2019), liveable world (Latour, 2019), implicit/explicit cultural policies (Ahearne, 2009), multi-layered identities, intercultural communication and sensitivity, linguistic justice, creative climate action, polygender, inside-out approach, and so forth.
  2. A second guideline for such research would consist of exploring more deeply ways to adapt various forms of intersectionality between cultural action and other policy fields to the realities of foreign and security policy, international partnerships and cooperation, and public diplomacy. Recent work on the health–culture, technology–culture, science–culture, and climate–culture nexuses could serve as starting points. This research investment would provide EU policymakers with strong justifications and arguments to legitimately connect and link up more concretely Member States’ cultural identities and sovereignty with European identities, competences, and related external action. It would also allow for more coherence between internal and external policies supporting the creative sector on the one hand, and the management of cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and cultural differences (including those resulting from recent migration and asylum) on the other.
  3. As a contribution to upcoming EU enlargement negotiations, and as a follow-up to the Group of Twelve report on institutional reform commissioned by Germany and France, the European Parliament and like-minded governments and organisations could commission specific expertise on the widening of EU competences in the field of external cultural action and on related EU decision-making procedures in the Council. The research should a) look at options to broaden the subsidiarity criteria applied to the whole field of external cultural action and b) propose legal options and conditions to extend qualified majority voting (QMV) in external action and foreign policies to several areas such as creative climate action, intercultural and multicultural coexistence policies, decolonial policies, cultural dimensions of migration and asylum policies, creative movements for freedom fighting, and the regulation of artificial intelligence and other technologies having cultural implications. Extending QMV to external cultural action would allow like-minded Member States to invest boldly in joined-up cultural initiatives globally.
  4. In parallel, some thought would need to be given to determining the parameters of a new EU agency for external cultural action (or a European Culture Facility), tasked with the convergence and coherence of creative and technological initiatives supporting freedom fighting objectives in the field of newly crafted work strands resulting from the refreshed conceptual and lexical commission mentioned above (Helly, 2023). The agency would need an autonomous mandate mirroring extended supranational competences and should function with a budget of at least €1 billion for the first multi-annual framework. The agency could be staffed with personnel recruited directly from the culture and creative sector, from EUNIC member organisations, and from staff and experts with proved external cultural experience from existing or past EU external cultural programmes. It would develop further the existing pilot initiatives of the European spaces (houses) of culture worldwide with like-minded partners, the cultural relations platform, and other existing culture-related programmes currently scattered across EU institutions. The governance of the agency would need to allow for a sound balance between creative autonomy on the one hand, and institutional control on the other.
  5. In the short term, a number of actions could be taken to lead to the creation of the agency. The first step would be to build a critical mass of political support for a European Culture Facility to support freedom fighting worldwide. A cross-party group on the topic, perhaps as a sub-group of the existing Cultural Creators group,10 could be a way forward (Cuny, Helly, 2023). One flagship initiative to develop under the aegis of the agency could be to boost the emergence of European audio-visual, cinema, and videogames champions, which are already growing (on the combined models of late Polygram, ARTE, and successful private producers), to produce attractive content (in films and series, but also documentaries and animated films, as well as gaming environments) for both European and global audiences. Partnerships with like-minded existing global platforms could also be envisaged. The European Culture Facility would also be best placed to build connections and synergies with tech communities as a follow-up to the recent launched Knowledge and Innovation Community platform (focusing on creativity and technology) managed by the European Institute of Technology.

Conclusion

Europe’s most fundamental values and freedoms are directly threatened by authoritarian regimes and aggressive measures against pro-democracy societies. Foresight studies predict that this trend is here to stay for several decades. Value wars and battles for sense-making in the creative sector are already
echoing this reality. EU external action now needs to shift from cultural resilience to cultural resistance and to creatively support freedom fighting movements worldwide on behalf of ‘Resistant Liberalism’. The next EU enlargement prospect is an opportunity to widen the scope of EU competences in external cultural action. Member States and EU political forces should initiate a new phase of EU foreign policy by supporting QMV for external cultural matters; encouraging fresh thinking on the cultural and creative dimensions of systemic climate, natural, technological, and societal transformations; and advocate for the creation of a European Culture Facility (or EU external action agency).


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