A personal point of view on the European project

European Union
A personal point of view on the European project

“We have to learn to judge a society on the noise, art and entertainment it makes rather than its statistics.” Jacques Attali


To understand events, we refer back to our personal life as well as the history of our societies, communities and humanity. We try to find explanations in the light of our experience guided by our belief, reason and observation. Born in Alsace, a place torn apart by successive wars between France and Germany, I am a profound and deeply committed European, a strong opponent of all forms of nationalism and suspicious of sovereigners‘ opinions by which a State’s competence should not be shared. I understand those ideas and even sometimes find them attractive as they provide solutions to living together in well-constructed communities. At their best these ideas serve to liberate people from domination (in the fight against imperialism or colonialism for instance), at their worst they justify ethnic cleansing. Overall however I see the nationalist vision as good at building walls, fueling prejudices and exacerbating conflicts; better at highlighting differences rather than in uniting people.

As an idealist and humanist I naturally prefer the ambition of managing complexities and differences to make the most of diversity in the firm belief that as humans we are all citizens of the world. This makes me a natural proponent of the European project: the idea that by creating solidarity and connections through common institutions and policies, humans are capable of working towards a common goal.

Trained as a lawyer, I am well aware of the power of legal norms to shape our societies. The bulk of European norms developed from the ratification of the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago envisaged a community of interest based on economic and trade solidarity. These norms are being put to the test now that Europe has to share its wealth with the developing world with some dire consequences for its weaker citizens that feel abandoned.

The EU, the largest trading bloc in the world, has been a driver of globalization contributing to more financial, technology and trade exchanges than any political alliance in the world. The liberal policies of the European Union have been shaped, in part, by representations from large industrial lobbies to the European Commission, as well as the influence of the majority of European governments leading to the development of inequality, industry delocalisation and the destruction of solidarity encouraging selfishness and greed. The European project is now paying the price for its past focus: deregulation, industry self-regulation (banking sector), fiscal paradises, encouraging competition among its members for the lowest social common denominator, industrial standardization to the detriment of quality (notably in the food sector with regulation on food safety or labeling that favours large industries) competition policies focused on easing trade and lower prices often to the detriment of excellence and European local tastes. The liberal mantra combined with a dose of naivety has to a large extent disarmed Europe faced with emerging economies less reluctant to protect their industries and people. On the other hand, the EU liberal trade agenda has contributed to the sharing of wealth with developing economies, notably Asia, with formidable results in the fight against malnutrition and poverty. It helped enable the fall of the corrupted Soviet regime. These are very significant achievements.

Bizarrely, EU institutions are populated with sympathizers ready, whatever their political opinions, to embrace the liberal orthodoxy as an ideology that serves cosmopolitanism like no other. I contributed to the neo-liberal movement by supporting the global ambition of a large European audiovisual company, a leader in music and films. I believe in the capacity of liberalism to empower people for the good of society. I like the idea that globalization contributes to getting people from different continents closer for the world to become more like a village. But I resent tax dodgers, greediness, the arrogance of elites and institutions biased towards the most powerful in society. European institutions have played their part in making our society unfair. Recent decisions from the Competition authorities on illegal tax arrangements by large corporations or States are welcome.

As a lobbyist in the audiovisual sector I witnessed the dynamics of the decision-making process. I saw the European project transformed into the narrow vision of establishing a free market against the building of a more cohesive European society founded on solidarity and shared goals. I saw the EU becoming too often the champion of mainstream and mono-culture as opposed to building on its strengths: diversity and excellence.

My work experience led to my idealism becoming tainted with a very large dose of pragmatism. Policy consensus in a democratic system is built on compromise. You need to know the rules and languages governing the European bureaucratic machine to enable you to reach such a position. I decided to make use of my legal, political and PR skills to serve my personal interest in life (art and culture) as well as my ideal (the European project).

Why culture and creative industries? First because these industries serve well my professional aspirations, driven by values and meaning rather than money and status. I had no difficulty in leaving the comfort of representing a large multinational or ignoring the advances of more powerful industries. I always had a preference for defending the underdogs; what some might call “lost causes.” Culture is truly marginalized in the EU set up. It is a subsidiary policy competence of the EU with limited funding (1.8 billion Euro over 5 years).

However, some 80% of the regulations affecting artists and the culture sectors across Europe come from Brussels in the form of copyright, trade and competition rules. Numerous EU funded programmes are accessible to culture projects in heritage, innovation, external relations or regional policy.

The second reason for working in culture lies in the difficulty to quit the industry of fun, beauty, culture and knowledge. This economic sector is populated with interesting and crazy people from the avant-garde of taste, fashion, political movement or social networking. It is a sector constantly bubbling with energy and driven by strong and determined personalities. Culture and art give meanings to things, to policies, to technology and science. This is largely missing from the European project. Culture is also the expression of freedom and individual emancipation against all forms of tyrannies. Today, cultural collaboration in the form of creative hubs, spearheads the sharing economy movement that potentially prefigures a post-capitalist society.

The cultural lobby deserves better. Traditionally it has focused on extracting public subsidies whilst largely ignoring major policy areas that would help culture and creative industries drive the EU policy agenda. The sector is still organized in a fragmented way along national subsidy lines or as a confrontation between industry and cultural activists ignoring the need to regroup and to compromise to have influence. A sector that is economically as large as the ICT sector with more jobs (8 Million across the EU) is still largely incapable of counterbalancing more powerful lobbies. This leads us to the third main reason for opting to promote the interests of culture and creative industries in Europe.

Indeed, the culture sector needs to adapt to new and tougher economic conditions driven by less public funding and digital technology disruption. Culture is at the forefront of technology and political changes; it influences these changes as much as it is impacted by them. Unfortunately, policy makers seem to consider only the latter situation thus focusing policies on technology innovation rather than culture-based creativity, innovation stemming from the work of artists and creative professionals.

This is largely because the sector and its actors suffer from incoherent and insufficient statistical information which would enable us to understand the value of cultural production and investment. Cultural policy is no longer only about entertaining the elites, enlightening the masses, attracting tourism and preserving the heritage. Today cultural investment touches on urban planning, economic growth, entrepreneurship, innovation, social cohesion, education and health. Investing in culture makes a lot of economic and social sense. The impacts that are leveraged are now better documented and numerous city authorities are demonstrating how culture contributes to quality of life, jobs and attractiveness.

KEA has been a pioneer in mapping the economic and social importance of the culture and creative industries at a European level (2006). In that study, we defined the various sectors and their interactions ahead of the UK’s DCMS. KEA developed the concept of Creative Europe and help define a EU Cultural agenda (ahead of the EU programme which adopted the same name in 2014). KEA headed or supported numerous EU-funded projects highlighting the importance of culture-based creativity in innovation (producers of artistic intervention, art and science or creative spillovers on other economic sectors). KEA showed SMEs from the cultural sector how to use EU law to their advantages against large corporations by blocking a merger in 2000 and helping the indie music sector to articulate a response on the impact of consolidation on cultural goods and services (IMPALA). KEA worked out different concrete proposals to integrate culture in Europe’s External Actions. It is helping local authorities to access EU funding to implement development strategy supporting culture and creative industries.

The heartless and tyrannical bureaucracy is obliged with time to succumb to the grey colors of the Berlaymont corridors and buildings, the endless unproductive meetings and the imposed discourse on productivity gains and competitive devaluation. The machine needs an overhaul. The EU institutional ecosystem requires profound design thinking to make it relevant again to its constituents and the aim of the Union.

Europe has yet to become a Union. Quality of life – which is as strong characteristic of Europe – should be given equal weighting in policy consideration to economic and trade targets. Measurement and impact assessment tools should be revisited to fit with societal goals. Europe remains a unique example in its capacity to promote diversity and manage cultural differences. At a time of cultural conflicts Europe’s experience has never been so important.

The challenge is to reconnect our European elite to the human, to the side of the brain that counterbalances rational and positive thinking with sentiment, passion, values and feelings. I am advocating the setting up of DG Empathy – headed by a professional artistic director or designer whose role would be to ensure that Europe speaks a language its citizens understand, a language that reconnects people with the purpose of the European project. This department would also be responsible for re-designing the organization with a view to implement a new work ethic, promote cohesion and inter-disciplinary collective actions. Civil servants have to be empowered again in their mission to promote the European project and to challenge the comfort zone of Member States. Successive administrative reforms have been successful in killing most of the motivation that historically fed the European spirit. In addition, institutions have to re-build relations with the Europhiles and develop a more consistent network of sympathizers. It is striking to note that despite all the European networks it has been funding for the last 60 years the European Commission has not been able to develop its fan base. Who would demonstrate against the disappearance of this unique international institution? How many “likes” on Facebook for Juncker and Tusk? It is time the European Commission embarked in serious soul searching and stops blaming others for its poor image.

Institutions have to become representative of the soul of Europe. A Europe without a soul, without a clear vocabulary and modern mission is the tragedy of the European project as it stands. A Europe without culture is a Europe without identity, a cold construct, detached from its people, its particularities and its collective aspirations.

Financial and economic integration will require intercultural mediation to achieve solidarity between nations, communities, people and economies. The capacity to understand each other’s cultures beyond clichés imposed by nation-building rhetoric will determine the success of Europe as a common destiny. Similarly, Europe’s capacity to promote local cultural expressions in the face of globalization will determine its capacity to remain creative and relevant as a civilization. What is Europe for? What is the meaning of the European project?

I advocate for a more integrated European Union capable of building trust, understanding and empathy between European citizens so as to make the foundation of the EU much stronger and less exclusively reliant on economic and financial targets implemented by a faceless bureaucracy.


Philippe Kern
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