Heritage as a political tool and statement, again
The Committee of the Regions (CoR) in Brussels wants to stick its oar
in the coming plans for a stronger European Heritage Label. In its
objections CoR begs a number of questions relating to the purpose and
efficacy of the EU’s plans for its cultural initiative. Official
Commission documents state that with its European Heritage Label it
“plans to highlight historical sites across Europe that ‘symbolize
European integration, ideals and history’.” The Commissions mission
was to foster the shared European identity and a sense of “belonging
to a common cultural space” by focusing on sites chosen for their
integration significance. These are worthy and perhaps essential
goals. But have they gone about this the right way?
In 2006, 17 EU member states plus Switzerland perused an
intergovernmental project establishing a European Heritage Label for
significant sites. The Commission proposes that this brand become a
formal European Union Initiative.
Is this the EU’s place?
There is indeed an important need being approached in this project to
“strengthen European citizens’ sense of belonging to the EU and
promote mutual understanding in Europe”. But is it the right action
response to the problem? And is it the place of the EU to take this
action? Does the EU dipping its toes in this pool render insignificant
other issues of moment it could be working on? Does it negate the
value of other similar initiatives hosted by other international
organizations? Or does the EU signify by this its commitment to hard
as well as soft priorities? Some say the EU should get itself strait
and pull together its hard core policies. Others say the EU should not
overstep its natural boundaries and usefulness and thereby infringe
sovereignty. Is the EU spreading itself too widely? Which of these two
competencies does it perform best? And of course one must consider the
regional issues raised by the CoR. Is the EU ignoring the regions
which should act as an essential glue in such an initiative?
There are many questions to be asked. The answers depend on one’s
vision of the EU and its powers and its potential areas of
Positively, there is a democratizing influence to this label leaving
space for recognition of non-obvious Christian or Greco-Roman sites.
The label also creates the opportunity to formulate a European | EU narrative.
There are three potential avenues of gain in this scheme which could
really benefit from it, they are: identity building of potential
accession nations to the EU and therefore in neighborhood policy; the
economic gain of interlinking and encouraging tourism; and the
educational potential for students in the future who will internalize
these pieces of propaganda over generations. If focused upon, in these
three areas the scheme could be most beneficial and most successful.
There are, however, a number of stumbling blocks.
Controversy One – Criteria
“Rather than architectural quality or beauty, sites will be chosen
according to their “European symbolic value” and their educational
significance for your people”. It is perhaps a great idea but does not
this rather call in to question the criteria which are so hap hazard?
Clear cut objectives and transparent methods, when lacking, lead to a
crisis of credibility and the eternal question: for what purpose is
the EU using the tax payers’ money.
Controversy Two – Redundancy
What makes this different from the other cultural recognition schemes
already in existence?
The two most obvious parallels are the UNESCO World Heritage scheme
and the Council of Europe’s Cultural Routes (emphasizing mutual
influences and sharing common values). Duplication hardly inspires
Controversy Three – Exclusivity
Who is in and who is out of this European party?
A European Heritage Label is inherently a statement about who is
Europe and what matters to Europe. Many will be left out of this
definition both in the EU 27 and outside the EU 27. Many aspiring
accession nations make it their lives business to prove that they
contain, within their very own boarders, symbols of Europe. The EU’s
choices will have stronger implications with these soft cultural
policies than it is aware. In making an institutionalized Label, the
EU must pay attention to the potential implications of defining
European symbolism unless it is prepared to be remarkably inclusive or
to defend its choices to outraged outsiders.
The EU should rethink this scheme. It is full of potential but being
executed clumsily. The most obvious route to success would be to set
up a partnering exercise with education. Culture should play a bigger
role in education and European culture certainly should have its
place. The EU should set up partnering of schools across countries
with a broader emphasis on European Heritage. The Heritage Label
should be a fluid and informal prize awarded yearly but to a very
small number of sites, (otherwise it will become a dime-a-dozen). This
targets a curriculum for students to learn about Europe and foster
both shared values and intercultural dialogue with partner schools. It
also concentrates the economic benefits closely by putting a small
number of sites on the map. Lastly, this Label should be treated with
gloves on, because used wisely it can bring peoples, regions and
nations together, but if used unwisely something this small can easily
become the cause of international strife.