More and better European Capitals of culture, please!

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The legend says it was an evening of strong winds in January 1985, in the airport of Athens. Melina Mercouri and Jack Lang were waiting for the departure of their delayed flights, and bred the idea to highlight the role of cities in the European cultures. After a few weeks of pregnancy, the Greek minister and the French minister raised a proposal to the rest of Ministers for culture of the European Union: to appoint every year a "European City of culture". The proposal was swiftly accepted "to highlight the richness and the diversity of the European cultures to the citizenship". Athens became in that same year 1985 the first European City of Culture.

Those were other times. Europe was writing a promising narrative, a thrilling process interesting to its Carolingian central axis, as well as to the Mediterranean, Northern, Central and Eastern peripheries. There were walls, there was a steel curtain, but citizens and the civil society felt invited to think beyond.

25 years later, that initiative has become one of the more symbolic, better known, more important European programmes. An action that makes Europe. An action that still raises an interest in the cities that have hosted the title and in the cities that wish to bid to obtain it. The European Capital of Culture is seen with interest by all the European citizenship and allows visualizing a different Europe.

46 cities have hosted the title from 1985 to 2012. Some big obvious cities have hosted the Capital like Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris or Istanbul, as well as some emblematic cities for the history of our continent, like Santiago de Compostela, Bruges, Weimar, Salamanca or Krakow; some unexpected cities have also hosted the title, cities that have had courage, have generated civic enthusiasm and have reinvented themselves, like Glasgow, Antwerp, Lille, Liverpool or the Ruhr (and these, it is not a surprise, were the most interesting, of course). But there are cities that have probably wasted the opportunity, like Patras, Thessaloniki or Pécs... This year, in 2012, the Portuguese Guimaraes and the Slovene Maribor are the European Capitals of Culture.

The initiative was born as "European City of culture" and became "European Capital of Culture" in 2000, when a list that pairs countries and years, from 2004 to 2019, was agreed by the Ministers of the European Union. Too slowly, the criteria and the methodology to choose the European Capital of Culture have evolved: the current situation is by no means not the optimum one to reach the goals that Europe had wished ("to highlight the richness and the diversity of the European cultures to the citizenship"), but it is necessary to recognize a huge progress with respect to the initial situation. Let's acknowledge the importance of the Palmer-Rae report (2006) and let’s explain the progress achieved.

Firstly, the decision has evolved from politics to quality: in the first 20 years, the cities were designated in the periodic meetings of the ministers of culture of the European Union; since 2007 the choice is carried out after the recommendation of a jury of 13 independent experts. Secondly, some selection criteria (the European dimension of the programme, the participation of the citizenship, the involvement of the urban actors and the long-term development of the city) have been introduced, even though they are still generic. Thirdly, the contents of the Capital Year have evolved, from being rather a yearly "festival of the arts" to a complex programme that places the accent on the citizenship, the public spaces, the creativity and the international connectivity of the local culture. Fourthly, there are mechanisms to guarantee rigor in the management of the event: the organization of a Capital Year mobilizes directly an average of 60 million euro, the local governance has to include the leadership of the local government as well as the implication of the civil society, and the expected impact (in economic, social, cultural and environmental terms) has to be analyzed from the beginning of the process. Finally, the European Capitals of culture require long-term planning: the cities are appointed at least five years in advance, following a list that pairs countries and year. In 2011 the Juries had to choose a Polish city and a Spanish city to become Capitals in 2016; intense competitions (with many projects of great quality) took place in Poland and Spain, resulting in the election of Wroclaw and Donostia – San Sebastián (although this subject would deserve a specific article...). In 2012 the Jury will have to choose a Cypriot city and a Danish city to be Capitals in 2017. Et caetera.

Today a European Capital of Culture is not chosen by what it was or what it is, but by what it wants to be. A project (the bid) needs vision, local and global research, mobilization, genuine capacity in a complex environment, true energy.

In these moments, the European Union is reconsidering the future of the European Capital of Culture. The list "ends" in 2019 with Italy and Bulgaria, and candidatures appear all over for the year 2020, like the German Mannheim, the Serbian Belgrade, the Croatian Split, the Russian Perm or the Romanian Timisoara.

The future of the European Capitals of Culture has been an object of an extensive debate in the course of the last year, with the participation of European cultural networks and of a good number of experts. Some of the subjects that have been analyzed in this debate are detailed in a very synthetic way, the selection being personal:

  • A restricted call with a pre-established list of "eligible" states every year (as now) or an open call to all the cities in Europe.
  • Some generic criteria of selection (as now) or some explicit criteria of selection in the areas of the cultural programme, the research, the formation, the governance or the impact.
  • Some strictly cultural criteria (as now) or some criteria that relate culture to the other areas of the development of a city (economic, social and environmental).
  • A call without entry barriers, allowing opportunistic cities to compete ("opportunistic" are those solely interested in the "city-branding" or with an awful current cultural policy, as it is now), or the introduction of some minimum thresholds (always qualitative) that guarantee the participation of the best.
  • A selection restricted to municipalities (as now) or the possibility of the metropolises to be able to elaborate candidacies.
  • A selection process in which each city elaborates a project (as now) or a process with bids jointly elaborated by two or three cities cooperatively engaged to a "European" subject.
  • Bids that solely focus on Europe (as now) or bids that foster the cooperation with the emerging cities from all over the world.
  • A coordination which is solely dedicated to the annual succession of Capitals, and, therefore, somehow suffering "the event disease" (as now) or the evolution of the programme towards a European platform of Research+Development+Innovation in the area of the local cultural policies.

Today Europe is not writing any thrilling story. It rather ascertains with fear (and with stupor) an economic decline brought about by the own incompetence and the (so-called) “emerging” competition. The cities continue being the places where the ideas appear. The European Capital of Culture is one of the few initiatives that are at the heart of the citizenship and that really create a different Europe. A Europe that will be more cultural or it will not be. More and better European Capitals of culture, please!


Jordi Pascual teaches cultural policies and management at the Open University of Catalonia, among other endeavours. He has published books, articles and reports on international cultural relations, culture and sustainability, the Agenda 21 for culture and the governance of culture, which have been translated to more than 20 languages. He has been a member state of the jury of the European Capital of Culture during 4 years, participating in the nomination of Istanbul, the Ruhr and Pécs for 2010, Turku and Tallinn for 2011, Kosice and Marseille for 2013 and Donostia - San Sebastián for 2016.