Tuesday

26th May 2020

Feature

Nationalists as much a threat to EU arts as resources

  • 'The battle of Europe is not being fought with tank and missiles but with ideas, narratives,' André Wilkens, the director of the European Cultural Foundation, told EU Scream (Photo: m4tik)

Europe's cultural narrative is increasingly dominated by the continent's new authoritarians.

Hungary under its autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán spends around three times as much on culture as any other EU country compared to the size of its economy.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Germany has a prominent far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, that threatens the arts and free expression.

And in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party stuffs cultural institutions with appointees who support a crude nationalism.

"The battle of Europe is being fought not with tank and missiles but with ideas, narratives," André Wilkens, the director of the European Cultural Foundation, told EU Scream.

Once in power, nationalist populist seek to "get rid of people who have a free spirit and don't perform according to their sort of policies, and then you have a situation when you can actually change the whole cultural infrastructure of a country," Wilkens said last month in Amsterdam.

Under Wilkens, the foundation — created after the Second World War to help heal the continent's wounds — has stepped up grant-making to arts and media that aim to strengthen democracy at another pivotal moment for Europe.

Mainstream forces risked ceding significant parts of the continent's cultural agenda to nationalist populists, suggested Wilkens, who expressed concern that European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen had broken with recent practice by not creating a commissionership with culture in its job title.

For "people who want to change things, culture is a hard issue," said Wilkens. "For the people who are complacent, it's a soft issue," said Wilkens.

In recent days, the Flemish region of Belgium has faced a barrage of criticism for using culture to reinforce what arts professionals see as an overtly-nationalist agenda.

The outcry came after Jan Jambon, the region's prime minister and culture minister, slashed arts funding while favouring continued investment in Flemish heritage such as cathedrals and paintings.

"Culture is in the DNA of the Flemish," Jambon wrote in a policy note. The goal was to "put new emphasis on maximising the social, personal and economic value of culture," he wrote.

The cuts leave "a weakened sector," Leen Laconte, the director of oKo, a federation for arts professionals in Flanders and Brussels, said in a statement.

Laconte said her organisation's membership had not been consulted in advance about the cuts, which include grants and projects where funds would be reduced by 60 percent in 2020 compared to the current year.

"For Jan Jambon, art is only relevant as a showy showpiece for a nationalist Flanders," Tom De Meester, a spokesman for the leftist Labor Party of Belgium, or PVDA, said in response to the plan. "Critical and innovative artists must give in and remain silent."

In Hungary, the government devoted 3.5 percent of GDP to culture in 2017 compared with a figure of 1.1 percent across the bloc's 28 member states, according to a Eurostat report issued in March.

The Eurostat report does not say where Hungary is spending the money nor does it comment on why Hungary ranked highest; the figures also include categories like broadcasting and publishing and religious services.

Even so, experts say the figures illustrate the determination of the ruling Fidesz party, led by Orbán, to stamp its illiberal agenda on the country.

"You only have to hear Orbán saying that this is a new era, and that this era has a special artistic and cultural reality," said Tere Badia, the secretary general of Culture Action Europe, a network of cultural organisations in Brussels.

"Combinations in between right-wing policy and culture are very, very, very dangerous," said Badia, adding that a priority for Budapest is establishing cultural institutions that hew to the government's nationalist narrative.

In Poland, arts professionals already were under pressure from conservative sections of Polish society before the right-wing Law and Justice party won an overall majority in 2015.

Since then, Piotr Gliński, the country's deputy prime minister and culture minister, has further squeezed free expression, including in the vibrant theatre sector.

One of Gliński's tactics has been the withdrawal of subsidies from festivals that stage works by the maverick Croatian director Oliver Frljić, or from festivals that merely involve him. Plays by Frljić have infuriated authorities by featuring sharp satire directed at leading figures from the Catholic Church and the Law and Justice party.

As a result, some audiences have had to pay dramatically higher ticket prices, a situation that represents "a kind of dangerous example of privatising a public performance," said Marta Keil, who has co-curated festivals and runs a performing arts institute in Poland.

The management of Polish museums, particularly those that deal with the Second World War and the extermination of the country's Jewish population, is another major concern, said Keil. "There's a huge attempt at rewriting the history" in favour of nationalist narratives, she said.

Asked about the lack of a commissioner in Brussels explicitly tasked with overseeing culture across the European Union, Keil said arts professionals felt increasingly abandoned.

"We are really very afraid of getting isolated again," said Keil, referring to the period Poland spent under communism. "If the EU will not see culture as one of the important fields of its action, we kind of leave all the tools to build a narrative to the right-wing and alt-right movements, as they do have support, they do have money," she said.

Podcast

Cultural Battlefield

Marta Keil knows firsthand the pressure on culture from Poland's ruling Law and Justice party. Her overview begins at the Polski theatre in the city of Wrocław, and describes an epic clash as the Polish museum sector is steadily hollowed-out.

Stakeholder

Brussels welcomes Nordic culture

Brussels will play host to more than 400 Nordic artists and creative practitioners this autumn, organised by one of Europe's most influential cultural institutions, BOZAR.

Feature

Children? Only if state permits it, says Romanian mayor

The mayor of the Romanian city of Targu Mures has said that the state should screen would-be parents for proof of a stable workplace, financial resources, basic education and the legal minimum age required to care for children.

Feature

New year, old problems for one of EU's poorest places

The year is off to a rocky start in Vaslui, one of EU's most impoverished regions and Romania's poorest county, where two 12-year olds were found in alcohol-induced coma after having spent their Christmas carol-singing money on alcohol.

Polish 'LGBTI-free zones' not ok, says EU commission

The European Commissioner for equality Helena Dalli has said the distribution of 'LGBTI-free zones' stickers or the adoption of anti-LGBTI resolutions cannot be allowed. Some 86 towns in Poland have so far declared themselves 'LGBTI-free zones'.

Feature

Paradox: Nordics' privileged youth feel miserable

Young people in the Nordic countries are among the most privileged in the world - yet many of them feel miserable. The Nordic Council is concerned and aims to find out why.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis
  3. UNESDACircularity works, let’s all give it a chance
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers call for post-corona synergies between economic recovery and green transition
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic co-operation on COVID-19
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic research collaboration on pandemics

Latest News

  1. Recovery plans unveiled This WEEK
  2. EU and UK stumbling into Irish border crisis
  3. Malta patrol boat 'intimidates' capsized migrants
  4. How coronavirus might hit EU defence spending
  5. Herman Van Rompuy on power and influence in the EU
  6. EU links access to recovery fund to economic advice
  7. EU wants to halve use of pesticides by 2030
  8. Top editors alarmed by media cuts in EU and beyond

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking Europe’s Economy Circular – the time is now
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  3. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us