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Cultural Diplomacy: The Missing Link in EU Foreign Policy


The EU’s principal values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are being challenged both internationally and within Europe itself, by populist governments. Faced with such threats to its cultural identity, the EU needs to respond, including by cultural diplomacy.

© REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The international system is undergoing rapid change. Power is shifting from Western states to rising powers; Russia and China are working to discredit civil and political rights; populists are eroding democracy by stealth; and America appears to be losing interest in upholding the liberal international order. The European Union, whose principal purpose is to protect human dignity by means of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, finds itself increasingly challenged in the realm of ideas.

Faced with threats to its cultural identity, Europe needs to mount a cultural response. EU member states have long practiced cultural diplomacy as a form of “soft power,” and EU ministers have stated that culture must also be an integral part of the EU’s international relations. Under EU law, cultural policy is primarily a national competence, but the EU may support it, including in foreign affairs.

For many years the European Commission has subsidized mostly short-term cultural development projects in various regions of the world. However, it has set neither geographical nor thematic priorities, and current spending patterns do not amount to an integrated strategy. In practice, the EU operates not one, but three foreign cultural approaches that reflect the geographical and budgetary logic of the relevant Commission Directorates General, with one responsible for culture, another for development, and a third for relations with the EU’s Eastern and Southern neighbors.

Links with the EU’s foreign policy priorities are tenuous. The European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic and foreign service, is short of cultural expertise and largely depends on the commission to fund external actions. Fragmented, under-resourced, and lacking a sense of direction, EU cultural diplomacy is in need of reform. Foreign cultural policy should be integrated with other policy domains, including human rights, development, and citizenship.

New Approaches Needed

There are a number of approaches the EU can take. Firstly, to push back against oppression, EU governments should step up support for the main international human rights regimes. It is hard to think of a reason why countries like India or Singapore could not be persuaded to join the UN Convention Against Torture, or why Malaysia must remain outside the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And, occasional outbursts from Washington grandees notwithstanding, there is no reason why the EU should not continue urging its partners to end impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by joining the ICC.

European diplomats should also speak out more often and openly in support of freedom of expression. Too often, when artists are silenced, filmmakers arrested, or books banned, the EU stays silent. Thirdly, the EU should speak out more forcefully to defend academic freedom. When China cracks down on local academics or blocks access to European academic journals, and the EU looks away, China rightly regards this as a sign of weakness. Defending academic freedom is not only a task for governments. Universities, too, must face up to their responsibilities.

Countering Disinformation

Meanwhile, Russia systematically engages in disinformation to disrupt liberal democracies. The EU has adopted counter-measures that range from legislation to counter cyberattacks to a fledgling “strategic communications” unit. It also urges social media companies to act as gate-keepers of information. But this way of privatizing public responsibilities poses risks to freedom of expression; the EU would be on safer ground by adopting legally enforceable measures to secure the transparency and accountability of social media platforms.

China’s efforts to control information go beyond domestic censorship and surveillance. They include deterring and combating foreign critical voices. China’s measures range from exporting surveillance technology, disinformation, and intimidation to the pursuit of a new international media order.

As part of its response the EU should increase its political and financial support of independent, quality journalism, including within Europe itself, where such journalism has come under increasing pressure from governments, such as in Hungary and Serbia. The EU’s response could also include citizenship education that builds the capacity to think independently and distinguish truths from falsehoods.

An Integral Part

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals focus on the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. They do not include a separate goal on culture. Instead the SDGs indicate culture must be an integral part of policies to alleviate poverty, promote education, gender equality, and sustainable urbanization, and build peaceful societies that respect universal human rights.

As the world’s leading donor of official development assistance, the EU would be well-placed to promote this ambitious agenda. So far, the EU and EU member states have been slow to embrace the SDGs, as managing migration took priority. The incoming European Commission will have an opportunity to break the deadlock. Areas where the EU could make a difference include culture and education, culture and freedom of expression, and culture and conflict management.

Europe’s partners in the world expect Europe to change the traditional model of donor-recipient relations, and replace it with models of exchange and cooperation between equal partners. Too often Europe is felt to be extending aid, whereas what it should be offering is recognition and respect.

President Macron led the way by offering to return African heritage in French museums, much of it obtained in dubious ways under colonial rule, to the countries of origin. Other EU governments are still considering their approach. The issue would benefit from some European coordination, if only to avoid decisions being taken largely along national lines—in an unintended but no less awkward echo of previous colonial competition.

EU ministers could take the lead. Using the EU budget, they could agree to coordinate their national support for cultural institutes and museums in Africa and other parts of the world. A practical and highly symbolic way to cement their cooperation would be to launch a European program for investment in cultural infrastructure and cultural cooperation with the Global South.

Leading by Example

To stand for freedom and other rights outside its borders the EU must lead by example. Arguably, credibility begins at home, by standing up for the rule of law in the EU itself.

There is no democracy without liberty, and “illiberal democracy” poses an existential threat to European values and institutions. Popular discontent in Europe is fueled by a pervasive sense of economic injustice and political disenfranchisement, and by cultural changes. National responses must address each of these dimensions, visibly supported by the EU. Along with fair but restrictive immigration policies, this means countering unemployment and the excesses of free markets, citizen empowerment, and national and European financial support for citizenship, education, and culture.

Most Europeans regard culture as the factor that does most to create a feeling of community among them as EU citizens. There is much the EU could do to “bring the common cultural heritage to the fore,” as the EU Treaty explicitly allows.

Too often EU citizens feel treated as economic entities only, and not as citizens of a common political project based on humanist values. Cultural heritage, citizenship education, and language education could be among the building blocks of national and European policies to strengthen the saliency of European citizenship, along with steps to restore the humanities at the center of public education. The EU would have to secure sufficient financing in its new multi-annual financial framework for common programs like Erasmus, Creative Europe, Europe for Citizens, and the new European Values Instrument.

There is no quick road to soft power; cultural diplomacy is not a panacea. It requires both modesty and ambition from its politicians. Demand too much and the policy backfires; do too little and it fails to deliver. In and by itself culture cannot resolve either intra-national conflicts or international ones. But culture can facilitate independent thinking, dialogue, and understanding, provided it is employed freely and independently.

The EU is still a long way from realizing the potential of cultural diplomacy. The EU should upgrade its policies for international cultural relations and integrate them with its other policies to defend and promote the rights and liberties that are at the core of Europe’s identity, at home and abroad.

N.B. The article is based on the author’s paper Cultural Freedom in European Foreign Policy (Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, 2019).