Culture in EU external relations – for a Creative Diplomacy

Creative economy
External relations
Culture in EU external relations – for a Creative Diplomacy

The European Union is facing many challenges. One such challenge, overshadowed by economic and financial problems, relates to the EU’s external actions and diplomacy. The revision of the EU Treaty and the acknowledgment that international problems would be more efficiently tackled by pooling diplomatic resources led to the EU being given more power in the field of external relations. The new position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security was created under the Lisbon Treaty (entered into force in 2009) and the holder is charged with coordinating the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. The European External Action Service (EEAS) and its country delegations throughout the world (169 countries) act as the EU’s diplomatic service. The Lisbon Treaty (art 167.3) calls upon the Union and its Member States to foster cooperation with third countries and international organisations in the sphere of culture.

Europe’s DNA is enshrined in a past where wars and rivalries between nations have nurtured the European project (2018 will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the end of the First World War which claimed over 8.5 million lives). European countries have a history of mismanaging cultural sensibilities which gives the EU credibility and a special responsibility to engage on the global stage. The EU is about the experience of implementing a Utopia: reconciling divergent national interests for a common cause. This could benefit a new international order.

The question arises as to whether EU diplomatic efforts would not be better served by giving more consideration to cultural exchanges with a view to addressing issues such as the EU’s image, conflict prevention, mutual understanding, immigration, sustainability and the fight against terrorism. Cultural exchanges outside the EU are predominantly the realm of nation states as culture policy remains essentially organised at national level[1]. National culture policy in the field of foreign affairs is about promoting languages, student exchanges or organizing prestigious artistic events to testify strong bilateral links between States, often to underpin lucrative trade agreements and political alliances. Culture is a powerful tool to brand a country’s achievements and its glorious distinctiveness and history. Foreign relations are probably the area where culture and artists are best instrumentalised for national political and trade objectives (a form of instrumentalisation that is well accepted the more so at the Venice Art Biennale with its national pavilions).

In the EU context, cultural activities are taking place at diplomatic level essentially with a view to entertain cocktail diplomacy. The scope of these activities is often limited to the expatriate community and its social connections. Some would argue that this is natural, as there is no European cultural identity to promote.

On the other hand, it is increasingly recognised that art and culture investment could make a huge difference in EU external affairs with a view to:

  • Promote the EU as a community of diverse cultures and languages sharing essential common values.
  • Contribute to the building of the EU’s image abroad beyond its economic and trade power (that is diminishing).
  • Make the EU look more modern and less “passé” (Europe is very creative and contemporary).
  • Attract students and foreign talents to Europe to build long term relationships with tomorrow’s leaders.
  • Foster artistic and creative collaborations to help the development of strong links and contribute to new visions challenging national stereotypes.
  • Increase trade opportunities for Europe’s formidable culture institutions and creative industries (which are looking for alternative funding opportunities and new markets). Business relations as well as trade are part of cultural exchanges.
  • Develop strong connections between people and citizens to promote mutual understanding between nations and civilisations which increasingly share a common destiny.

Cultural operators, whether institutions, businesses, NGOs are right to make the case that cultural investment is good for foreign relations and ultimately to achieve EU goals (including in economic and trade fields). They now have to build the case justifying more culture in EU external relations’ policy.

Calls for additional resources devoted to cultural exchanges are likely to fall on deaf ears during these times of budgetary constraints and considering that they are still very powerful factors that will work to limit the emergence of a European cultural policy ahead of a European cultural identity.

Surely the fostering of university and scholarship exchanges is of paramount importance? The development of links between national cultural institutes and encouragement for them to pool resources for the sake of efficiency and meaningful impact is essential. However these justifications are likely to be insufficient to convince Member States that the EU’s external relations need culture beyond the implementation of the UNESCO conventions[2]. It is about mainstreaming cultural consideration in EU foreign policy making; the cultural operators providing the ideas, the energy, the engaging concepts that will enable diplomacy to be more effective because it is capable of more empathy.

Cultural actors should strongly argue for capacity building at EU level, associating the willing stakeholders across policy fields integrating diplomats, defence specialists, artists, creative, culture industries, cultural institutions, NGOs to enable consultation and concertation on the way forward.

The world is changing and our cultural discourse has to change too. Culture is more than exhibitions, pilot projects, institutions and artists in residence. Culture is also economic and trade exchanges, it is driving innovation at social and technology levels which are essential elements in today’s foreign relations. Culture is one of the main drivers of cities and metropoles development throughout the world.

Third countries are asking more of Europe, as the European continent is perceived as being exemplary in nurturing excellence, in valorising its heritage, and in nurturing its creative forces, while at the same time remaining open to exchanges. It is as much the cultural content produced in Europe that is in demand as the tools that Europe has put in place to support its diverse cultural expressions and identities. This is an opportunity for Europe.

Today most cultural exchanges take place through the intermediation of technology and entertainment, media or cultural, creative companies, creative incubation centres and cultural districts. Should external relations continue to ignore this?

Why is European cinema absent from Chinese screens? Why is Europe incapable of projecting its image in the rest of the world[3]? It would be a mistake to take culture only as a communication tool. Culture is an economic, trade[4] and social resource that should also be mobilised in foreign affairs.

I propose the following convincing arguments for the successful integration of culture in EU External Actions:

  1. Adopt an encompassing concept of “cultural actors” :
    The latter should include amongst others: artists, creative professionals (designers, architects), cultural institutions (museum, national or local cultural centres etc), foundations (private or public), universities, culture and creative businesses (the most powerful soft power being theatres, audiovisual and music as universal and in the same time local languages).
  1. Enlarge the concept of external relations beyond the realm of culture, development aid and foreign affairs to also include trade and intellectual property. Today trade negotiations (the latest example being the Free Trade Agreement between the EU and the USA) or international treaties on intellectual property (aimed at promoting creativity and rewarding creators) have tremendous impact on cultural activities and exchanges. Their outcome affects the diversity of cultural offers made available to the public, influences access to “markets” as well as the negotiation powers of creators with users. This dimension is important as the EU is essentially an economic project whose bureaucratic muscles are geared towards the defence of Europe’s economic competitiveness in the world. These constraints need to be part of the narrative promoting the integration of culture in EU External Relations.
  1. Make the case that culture is at the forefront of the technology revolution and that Europe, as a major producer of cultural content, has to be present in the virtual networking of citizens at global level. Foreign relations are taking place on interactive digital platforms as well as in embassies. The Arab spring has shown the participatory nature of foreign relations with citizens making use of technology tools to exchange essentially cultural content (information, images, music, ideas). This has to be integrated in EU policy and ultural actors are those who are best positioned to empower EU diplomacy in this respect.
  1. Show that supporting creativity and individual talents is a powerful means to promote freedom of expression and the intercultural dialogue beyond commercial or state interests.

The priority should be to seek support for ambitious projects: projects that give resonance to the European project and its collaborative nature. Our statements should not entertain the fallacy of “independent nations” whilst globalisation requires that the existence of local identities, cultural expression and productions are addressed.

It is not enough to “open dialogues”. This smacks complacency and lack of imagination. Asia and America’s dominance should be liberating and give Europe the position of engaging citizens throughout the world in a disruptive way with all its creative capacity (that is now probably superior to its military capacity). Culture contributes towards positioning Europe as a creative continent, populated by fancy fashion designers, architects, chefs, musicians, writers, cinematographers, painters and poets. They make our world rich in ideas and beauty. Culture and its education heritage makes Europe and its cities the most attractive touristic and learning destination. The world envies Europe for its cultural and creative achievements. Cultural actors have the capacity to project Europe more globally.

Europe is not a means to an end but it is a way of life. This is the main reason why the EU’s diplomacy should require culture. What is the cost to Europe’s diplomacy for not making the most of the continent’s formidable cultural resources?


Interventions on this topic by Philippe Kern:
  • “From Cultural Diplomacy to Cultural Solidarity”, Council of Europe Assembly of Compendium Stakeholders and Experts, Nicosia (Cyprus) 30 March 2017
  • “Creative economy, cultural diplomacy and international development”, European University Institute of Florence (Italy) 19 May 2017


Philippe Kern




[1] See KEA study on ‘European Cultural Institutes Abroad’ for the European Parliament (CULT committee), 2016

[2] The UNESCO Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions of 2005.

[3] See KEA study: ‘Film Festivals at EU Delegations’, for the European Commission DG CNECT, 2015

[4] For instance, the Cariforum-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) is aimed to facilitate trade in cultural services by improving market access conditions for entertainment services suppliers from Cariforum countries. In addition, it includes a new mechanism, the Protocol on Cultural Cooperation (“Protocol”), which sets a framework for cooperation seeking to promote cultural and audiovisual exchanges.






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