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How does the paradox of European cultural policy-making prevent European citizens from embracing a genuine European demos? Although Erasmus is widely considered to be a great success, having led millions of young Europeans to discover another Member State and often to settle there, the nearly 20 million Europeans living abroad in the European Union and their contributions seem to have been neglected. The cultural policies designed and implemented by the European institutions either encourage partnerships between structures based in different countries or support democracy through actions that include disadvantaged sections of the population in one country. At a time when Brexit has shown the potential for rejection by other European citizens and as international tensions are generating ever greater threats, the European Union must be vigilant in ensuring the cohesion and solidity of a European spirit within each of its Member States. We must take care not to miss the second stage of the Erasmus rocket.


Erasmus+ is acknowledged as one of the major successes – if not the main one – of European integration. Since the programme was created in 1987, it has allowed 12.5 million young people to gain first-hand experience in another Member State. Every year, more and more people take advantage of the opportunity, with 1.2 million participating in 2022, and the budget has increased by 80 per cent for the 2021–2027 multi-year plan.18 The objective for this period is to see 10 million young people living and studying in other countries – as many as during the first three decades of the programme. European institutions, the Council, the Parliament, and the Commission are conscious of the popularity of this programme and of the benefits of so many young Europeans knowing one another personally.

This certainly contributes to the fact that the number of Europeans living in another country is constantly increasing, reaching 17.6 million in 2018, with annual growth of 5 per cent (RTBF Actus, 2020). This means that around 5 per cent of European citizens currently live in another Member State.

But are we not missing the second stage of the Erasmus rocket? Are we sure that European cultural policy-making does not prevent European citizens from embracing a genuine European demos and doing what needs to be done to foster it?

European cultural policy: legal instruments and driving principles

While we have no proof that Jean Monnet actually said ‘if I had to do it all over again, I would start with culture’ (Bossuat & Wilkens, 1999: 435), cultural policies are seen as a way for Europeans to get to know each other better and develop a sense of belonging to a European people. In 2017, for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Council declared that ‘[They] want a Union where citizens have new opportunities for cultural and social development and economic growth. … a Union which preserves our cultural heritage and promotes cultural diversity’ (Euronews, 2017). In 2018, the Commission responded to this wish and introduced a New European Agenda for Culture.

As culture is a competence shared by the Union and the Member States according to article 167 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the Agenda includes several recommendations but also some common actions. Based on the fundamental assertion that cultural participation brings people together, the focus was on fostering the cultural capability of all Europeans; encouraging the mobility of professionals in the cultural and creative sectors; and supporting culture-based creativity in education and innovation for jobs and growth and strengthening international cultural relations (Euronews, 2017).

The list of proposals was devised before the COVID-19 pandemic. In their responses in 2020, the Council and the Parliament praised the desire to strengthen the role of culture within the Union but added a concern for the situation of cultural agents, most of whom are small structures, and for the well-being and mental health of citizens through cultural practice or experience.

None of the resolutions, conclusions, or communications from the three institutions from 2018 to 2022, which respond to each other, include any mention of the development of European communities in other Member States, or of the possible synergies between them. Nor is it made explicit in the Porto Santo Charter initiated by the Portuguese presidency in April 2021, which is intended to be an official launch of the commitment to a cultural policy to strengthen democratic values.

This joint declaration, signed by 16 Member States plus Norway, and 18 associations and foundations, reiterates the role of culture in preserving a healthy democracy and the importance of both the democratisation of culture and cultural democracy, while distinguishing between the two concepts. The aim of this joint commitment is to promote European cultural citizenship through a series of recommendations to public officials, cultural and educational organisations, and citizens. Once again, none of them specifically target Europeans living in another country.

The organisers of the Conference of Porto Santo, the Portuguese presidency of the Council, and the National Plan for the Arts underline that this event was ‘the beginning of dialogue across Europe, joining government officials, experts, networks, organizations and practitioners’. A second conference was held in November 2023 with increased participation by young people to promote their cultural rights in a democratic society and, specifically, the role of cultural and artistic education for the development of cultural citizenship.

Are we not missing the second stage of the Erasmus rocket? Are we sure that European cultural policy-making does not prevent European citizens from embracing a genuine European demos and doing what
needs to be done to foster it?

A missing piece of the puzzle: synergies between cultural communities

As can be seen from these examples, Member States and the European institutions want to strengthen the role of culture within the Union and have shown their commitment by increasing the budget for Creative Europe, the flagship programme for the Union’s cultural policy, by one billion euros, to 2.44 billion euros in the European Union’s financial framework for 2021–2027. The status of the artist, the inclusivity of the population, diversity education, and respect for multilingualism are some of the priorities underscored by both the Parliament and the Council for this period.

As culture is a shared responsibility with the Members States, the Union contributes to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States while promoting their diversities. Thus, the Commission can only fundamentally facilitate cooperation between the countries’ cultural agents. This is also why the Council asked the Commission to use the open method of cooperation to implement the New European Agenda for Culture.

Through its culture and media strands, Creative Europe has developed platforms to facilitate long-term cooperation and create networks that cover all areas of culture. The potentially funded projects are either those focusing on targets for inclusion or those involving players from several European countries and creating long-term partnerships. The same principle led to the creation of the European university networks.

This mindset is shared by other major cultural players in the European Union such as the European Cultural Foundation (ECF), which has initiated The Europe Challenge (2023). For this new edition, 55 associations of libraries and communities from 24 countries have been selected according to a project which addresses various challenges facing Europe such as social isolation, inequality, and disinformation. None of the projects, even those presented by the library of a European cultural centre in France, mention any European communities.

This may explain why the only reference made to the EUNIC, the network of European cultural centres, in the communications and resolutions of the three institutions is found in the section devoted to cultural diplomacy and relations with third countries.

Member States and the European institutions want to strengthen the role of culture within the Union
and have shown their commitment by increasing the budget for Creative Europe, the flagship programme for the Union’s cultural policy.

The paradox of European cultural policy

Despite all its efforts to support culture as a force for inclusion and democracy and to promote the cultures and languages of the Member States by creating links across borders, the European Union does not seem to pay attention to the contribution of the European diasporas in the countries of the Union or to develop their synergies in favour of a European demos based on a common culture.

The paradox is that the European Union, through the settled programmes, cannot, for example, support a project run by associations of Lithuanians, Cypriots, and Belgians, or a co-production between Irish, Bulgarian, and Finnish cultural centres, because they are all legal structures in the same country.

By sticking to this principle, the European Union risks missing out on the second stage of the Erasmus rocket. In other words, now that millions of Europeans have settled in another Member State, thanks in particular to Erasmus, Schengen, and the fundamental freedom to move within the Union, their cooperation has to be fostered and their contribution must be valued. Otherwise, the Union faces the risk that there could be a confrontation between some of these communities or a rejection by the host country citizens, as sometimes happened in the United Kingdom prior to the Brexit vote.

This lack of cooperation among European expats and valorisation of their contribution also depends on factors independent of European policy-making. Cultural centres and even some diaspora associations are funded by their country of origin, which results in bilateral projects. These players work either for their community to ensure solidarity, develop cultural pride, or maintain the feeling of national belonging, or for the citizens of the country of residence to spread awareness, improve the group’s image, and facilitate integration. With a few rare exceptions, social or cultural events of one country do not attract citizens from all the other Member States.

However, in order to accept the European Union and the agreements and compromises it implies between Member States, Europe’s citizens need to know and understand each other. Many European conferences and debates are organised, especially in May, to celebrate Europe day. But, thanks to or because of Erasmus, Creative Europe, and Schengen, these occasions also draw in participants from other Member States who live nearby. This is seen most clearly in big cities but is not limited to them.

Nurturing the European demos

The contribution of European expatriates to another European country should be valued in such a way that the citizens of the host country celebrate their presence and the mixing of different European nationalities, whether it is an economic, financial, scientific, research, educational, sports, or, of course, cultural contribution.

Once again, culture is key. Cultural events involving European artists provide opportunities for citizens of several nationalities to meet each other, understand their differences, and share common values. Media, and especially digital ones, should be encouraged to cover such events, as the European Cultural Hub in France does.

Co-productions by cultural agents or joint events of associations of different European nationalities in the same country, or even the same city, should be favoured to facilitate working together and co-producing works. Such an idea is similar to the ninth recommendation of the Porto Santo Charter but without the trans-European specificity.

Clearly there have been some spontaneous initiatives, but they do not have a European label nor funding. In France, we could quote ‘La nuit de la lecture’ or ‘jazzy colours’, annual events organised by the FICEP (Forum des Instituts cultures étrangers à Paris), which co-creating shows between the cultural centres. But, actually, the scope of countries involved is broader than the European Union.

Policy suggestions

That is why the EUNIC clusters should be strengthened in the Member States to foster synergies and cooperation between the European cultural centres and to multiply operations, such as the paths of famous Europeans in a city or a stroll through a city’s European libraries, as have been generated in Paris.

The ‘Maison de l’Europe’ in France, or the Europe Direct Centres, should transform into the ‘Maison des Européens’ in order to foster the activities of associations representing the diasporas and pool resources. Having these associations gathering in the same place would naturally lead the members to mix and cooperate, especially regarding cultural heritage or creation.

Finally, the criteria for EU programmes such as Creative Europe, Erasmus+, Horizon Europe (Cluster 2 ‘Culture’), and the New European Bauhaus should be relaxed so that entities representing Europeans of several nationalities can work and create together, even if they are legally settled in the same country.

As can be seen from these suggestions, a slight change in the interpretation of the Treaties – or perhaps in mindsets – would be all that is needed to strengthen cooperation between Europeans and those involved in the cultural field, to make greater use of the contribution made by European communities, and to ensure that Europeans feel bound together by a common demos.


  • Bossuat, G., & Wilkens, A. (eds.) (1999). Jeanne Monnet, l’Europe et les chemins de la paix. Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne.
  • Euronews (2017). ‘[Texte complet] Lisez la Déclaration de Rome’. 25 March (updated 9 December 2019), https://fr.euronews.com/2017/03/25/texte-complet-lissez-la-declaration-de-rome/.
  • The Europe Challenge. (2023). ‘The Europe Challenge Announces 55 Libraries and Communities from 24 Countries for Its 2024 Edition’. Press release, 20 December, https://theeuropechallenge.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Press_Release_The_Europe_Challenge_2024.pdf.
  • RTBF Actus. (2020). ‘En 2018, 17,6 millions d’Européens vivaient dans un autre Etat membre’. 30 January, https://www.rtbf.be/article/en-2018-176-millions-d-europeens- vivaient-dans-un-autre-etat-membre-10420855.
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