Ben Ray discusses why he believes that Europe’s rich and varied cultural heritage can form part of creating connections across the world and why the EU should incorporate a cultural element into its diplomacy.

Go to any continent, and you can buy Italian fashion. Then you can eat at a French-style restaurant. Afterwards, you may fancy a pint at an Irish pub. European culture, that is, culture from the countries that make up Europe, is now ubiquitous across the world – and yet European diplomacy remains strangely rooted in the same tired, traditional format that it has inherited from previous grey generations. Dinners, cocktail events, flag ceremonies: here, the rich and instantly recognizable field of European culture is never used as anything more than a garnish, a side-note to more important matters of state. If the world wants its own small piece of European culture, why does the EU not want to give it to them?

Celebrate diversity

Of course, in this brief article much diversity and nuance surrounding this topic must be simplified to an almost painful degree. In respect of European culture, this piece and, indeed, the EU, I will speak only of the culture of the 27 EU Member States. Although British tea, Swiss chocolate and Bosnian baklava are all from the continent of European, they shall not be discussed here. And to be clear, this article does not advocate for one, homogenized version of European culture – on the contrary, Europe’s cultural strength lies in its diversity.

Even pared down to the 27 EU countries, there is still an unbelievably fruitful store from every part of the cultural toolbox that can be used with pride to represent what Europe stands for. In short, European diplomacy needs to stop re-treading the same diplomatic ground and engage with this. If Europe has cultural goods and elements that the world wants, then why shouldn’t it build on that?

Of course, European culture should not be foregrounded at the expense of political and economic objectives – on the contrary, the EU’s diplomatic goals in these areas could be better achieved through the intelligent and careful connection through culture. What a great sign of unity and confidence could be shown than the cultural connections of 27 countries working together?

Cognizant of our cultures

If von der Leyen truly wants a more geopolitical Commission then surely a clear, outgoing awareness of its cultural identity to the world is a vital part of this.

Culture could be integrated into the EU’s external actions, opening dialogues in innovative and bold new ways and allowing the world to see and relate to Europe as an exciting, dynamic and attractive space. Culture humanises Europe and makes its position more relatable. Is this not everything Europe wants to project to others and be associated with – heterogeneity, liberal values and freedom of expression?

This is all very well for the EU’s geographically distant partners, like America and China. But how can a more creative diplomacy be of use with neighbours closer to home? Obviously, here there are cultural sensitivities and conflicts to take into account, though it may be said that on the whole, a more and better appreciation of culture in currently fraught relations with neighbours like Russia could help to smooth a path to better ground, and remind both parties of the myriad of cultural, historical and social links that bind them together.

Historic and cultural ties

All of Europe’s regions and states have been seen by many as an intrinsic part of the European family, just as for centuries Russia has been a part of that narrative and family. Where politics can find no purchase or ground on which to build relations with, for example, Belarus or Serbia, demonstrating an awareness of the cultural ties that bind us might be a good place to start.

European countries are full of creative people and different cultures, but Europe itself could be much more than simply that. With the digital economy and a green revolution underway, there has never been a better time for the EU to think more creatively: to mainstream Europe’s cultural values into every space, and not just exile it to token national days in the European Parliament. Perhaps the answer is a new sector, “DG Culture” – or perhaps that is too reductive and constraining for such an overarching concept. Certainly, it’s far from clear if the new position of the Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life helps this problem in any way.

As such, should the EU want to project itself to the world as a union with an identity, and not just a heartless political and economic bloc, then European diplomacy must learn to be more cultured.

Ben Ray
Ben Ray is a freelance journalist in European affairs, specialising in communications and environmental issues. He is also a professional poet with three publications, and has recently won the 2020 New Poets Prize. A graduate of Oxford University and the College of Europe, he currently works as a communications strategist within the EU Commission and lives in Brussels. Find out more about his work at: www.benray.co.uk, or on Twitter at: @Benj_Ray

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