Why did I decide to include 'culture' as one of the four key priorities of my presidency?
Europe is a place of extraordinary cultural and artistic richness and vibrancy, as well as immeasurable cultural heritage and linguistic and cultural diversity. Nonetheless, surprisingly, culture has been absent from the dominant political discourse.
Many of the challenges we face today – including man-made environmental changes, social tensions both within our local communities and right up to the level of international relations, our inability to adapt our political systems in an ethical and proactive manner to the increasingly rapid changes brought about by the international digital revolution – can only be confronted constructively if we decide to work with culture in mind.
It has been demonstrated that culture and cultural practice have a positive correlation with democracy, allowing for a shift in perspective, active engagement and empowerment. Nonetheless, isolationist and nationalistic movements often abuse the concepts of culture and identity, employing them in a narrow, static sense and making use of their emotional potency.
We need to ensure that these anti-democratic tendencies do not gain ground; we need to overcome them through an enhanced sense of belonging and empowerment, through a diverse and open understanding of culture, heritage and the arts.
Let me put forward three arguments.
Firstly, an economic argument: culture, arts and the creative industries are known to constitute an enormous economic asset. They currently represent 4.2% of European GDP, and offer employment to 8.4 million people across Europe. The continued development of this sector is certainly one way of ensuring sustainable economic growth for the EU. Investing in cultural infrastructure has an impressive positive impact in those areas that surround it, driving growth in adjacent sectors as well.
Another angle is also important: if we look at the skills we will need to adapt our economies to increasingly rapid change, creativity and complex problem solving are factors that are at the heart of this process: for example, they feature in the list of the top ten skills cited by the World Economic Forum. These key elements can be developed via arts and creative education.
Secondly, a social argument: it has been demonstrated that culture and the arts enhance community cohesion, promote inclusive societies and ensure intercultural exchange. They allow us to see difference as an asset and to benefit from its positive potential. They promote constructive criticism and open reflection. Artistic practice and engagement are associated with higher levels of wellbeing, less anxiety in changing environments, openness and a positive self-image, leading to higher levels of life satisfaction.
Last but not least (and this ought to have been the first argument I made): we need to place people firmly at the centre of political decision-making – and thus of our societies. Economic growth is not enough. The missing link, the catalyst for this shift, is culture. Culture is what makes us human, it forges our understanding of continuity with the civilisations that have come before us and with our cultural heritage, and thus enhances our sense of belonging. Engaging with the arts allows us to take a step back from the frenetic pace and obligations of our lives, enabling us to interact freely and perceive meaning in our lives beyond the need to simply survive.
Culture shapes how we interact, communicate, believe and dream about our present and our future.
So yes, culture is central to a new European Renaissance. This is because our societies and political systems are made by human beings, who together can ensure a sustainable future for our world.