European Capital of Culture: History of a Community Paradox

United in cultural diversity

, by Mehdi Drici, Translated by Elena Montani

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English] [français]

European Capital of Culture: History of a Community Paradox

2008: European year of the intercultural dialogue. The title is pretty. And the result seems obvious, as, since May 2007, culture has become a key component of the EU’s international relations with the “Agenda for Culture”. This is particularly flattering for Europe, considering that only 0.03% of its budget is devoted to Culture. The development of the event “European capital of culture”illustrates this curious paradox of the Community culture policy in which projects do not go hand in hand with budget. Let’s go back to 25 years ago.

At the base, an intergovernmental choice

Indeed, it is only in 1983, 28 November, during the informal European Council of Athens, that the then Greek Minister for Culture, Melina Mercouri, has an idea. What if, in order not to leave Europe to a purely economic logic, one would organise cultural events in a different city each year? A “European City of Culture”. Why not…

The adventure starts in 1985 with Athens. The nomination of the city was a decision taken in an intergovernmental way by the representatives of the Member States meeting in the Council. But, after the rotation of the 12 following countries at the Presidency of the Council, competition emerged between Member States, making a decision which had to be taken unanimously more and more complicated. Nine cities stood as candidate for 2000. Opportunely, the Ministers in place decided to chose them all “in view of the special importance that the year 2000 covers”. Nevertheless, the system proved all its limits, competition and unanimity definitely not going well together.

The communitarisation of culture

It is under the presidency of the United Kingdom in the first half of 1998 that the procedure developed, and led to the decision of 25 May 1999 instituting a Community action for the European Capital of Culture event for the years 2005 to 2019, and endorsing on this occasion the title of “capital”, that certain cities had granted themselves. The designation formula, still in place, foresees a rotation between Member States in order that competition takes place in the country concerned and not between countries.

Moreover, the communitarisation of the procedure leaves less place to governments: even if, officially, the Council always designates the selected city, it is for the Commission to manage the files and to transmit a reasoned opinion on the candidate cities. The order of the countries being predetermined, each one has its turn ensured, and since 2003, a decision was taken in order to take into account also the neo arrivals in the Union: from 2009 to 2018, one of the new Member States will be able to hold a European Capital of Culture in addition to those of the old Members.

Thus, from a precarious legal framework and a shaking political will, the “Capital” has became an unavoidable event of the European cultural life, and has structured the cultural action of the Union around the advantages that this could represent for all those involved. Capitals in the framework programmes…

To begin with, the lucky designated cities benefit from an incomparable media attention. Especially, the cultural expansion develops tourism and the creative activities. The main element is the possibility of stimulating the creative activity of a region. Let’s take the example of Lille 2004, which generated a 22% increase in the employment in the cultural sector. But also, more prosaically, the chance to build or modernise cultural places consumed by time.

Liverpool thus envisaged the modernisation of the “Bluecoat” in the oldest building of the town centre in order to welcome its young local talents; and, in 2005, Cork had its airport increased. However, the first objective is not economic development, unlike the Structural Funds. The European aspect of the project has priority over the situation of the single city. However, despite sometimes enormous budgets like for “Liverpool 2008” and its 150 million euros, the Community investment remains modest, even if it is the European cultural event which generates most expenditure. Indeed, the Union contributed on average only to 1.53% of the total expenditure for the period 1995-2004, for a total which amounts to 3 or 4 billion euros, according to the estimates of the Palmer Report. The remaining is funded by public operators (cities, regions, states) and private agents, who are responsible for setting up the events or ì take part in it in a secondary way (travel agencies, hotel chains…).

Here is how this almost ancestral event on a Community scale and with a rather starveling budget paved the way through its successful results for the “Culture 2000” and now “Culture 2007” framework programmes. A budget of 400 million euros has been allocated until 2013, with the aim of encouraging cooperation between the inventors, the cultural actors and the cultural institutions of the Member States in all artistic and cultural disciplines. In order to create a common space of cultural expression. With only 0.03% of the budget. Let us imagine what we could do with 0.3 % of it.

Image: stamp issued for the occasion of Lille, European Capital of Culture 2004.

Discover :
- Liverpool, capitale européenne de la culture 2008
- Stavanger, capitale européenne de la culture 2008
- Sibiu, capitale européenne de la culture 2007


Your comments


Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom