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Is the EU Cultured Enough?

EU subsidies are a hotly disputed issue when it comes to agriculture or development aid. But what about culture? How does the EU decide what culture projects are worthy of money?


How much culture can the European Union support?

One of the main advantages of the European Union is the unique chance for the 15 member states to share and experience different cultures. This is not an easy exercise given the enormous costs involved in activities such as restoring buildings, funding orchestras and teaching foreign languages. But it is a crucial element in obtaining the EU's goals of creating a sense of stability and solidarity across a continent traditionally associated with war and turmoil.

On average, 240 euro of the taxes each European pays are funnelled to the EU in Brussels, a portion of which go towards the cultural upkeep of the European Union. But are EU citizens getting value for their money, and will this change after the EU's eastern expansion process takes place?

EU Culture Committee

The EU has historically focused on the economy, but in a climate where public support for the Union is becoming increasingly important, more emphasis is being placed on the benefits ordinary people gain from the EU.

Since the EU's Maastrict treaty was passed in 1993, there has been an official organization of a pan-European cultural policy. The Culture Committee has four main goals of improving the knowledge of European history and culture, conserving important symbols of European heritage, sponsoring non-commercial cultural exchanges and promoting artistic creation, including the audio-visual sector.

As part of its culture policy, the EU recognizes outstanding cultural projects within its member states. One of the most prestigious awards is the annual naming of the European City of Culture, which provides the chosen city with EU funding for a wide range of arts and sports related projects. The German city of Weimar benefited from these funds in 1999. Salamanca in Spain and Brugges in Belgium jointly hold the 2002 title.

Other culture projects include sponsorship of theater, tourism initiatives, musical events and exhibitions. Last year's European minority languages initiative also received funding and support from the EU.

The culture fund also finances exchange initiatives between European towns and universities and promotes the improvement of communication between the member states, particularly using Internet-based media projects.

Does the EU politicize culture?

British member of the European Parliament and former member of the Parliament's Culture Committee Timothy Kirkhope is skeptical about the EU's culture initiatives. "I find the term 'culture' controversial," he told DW-WORLD. "When one defines what is or isn't culture, it should be considered on an nonpolitical basis and that often isn't the case. I find the process too political."


Semperoper in Dresden

Kirkhope, a member of the Dresden circle for promotion of the city's culture, said the eastern German city exemplifies the inefficiencies of the EU's funding criteria which looks mainly at the applicant's economic needs rather than the cultural worthiness of the claims.

Dresden, which was nearly destroyed in World War II and suffered further neglect under the communist East German government would have been a prime candidate for fully benefiting from EU funding after Germany united in 1990. Instead, political expediency won over cultural necessity, and the funds went else where, said Kirkhope.

"EU funding wasn't delivered directly to Germany after unification," Kirhope explained. "It couldn't go to certain cities due to politics. In terms of economics Saxony wasn't the most needy region in Germany. Berlin met the economic requirements of the funding application and so received more EU funding than Saxony, even though it had less cultural heritage."

How much is in the EU pot?

A common fear across the EU is that there will be less money available for cultural activities after the enlargement process takes place to allow the 10 candidate countries into the EU club in 2004.

According to William Newton Dunn, Vice Chair of the European Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, EU enlargement will influence the divvying up of cultural subsidies: "If the culture budget is increased, then the money will be spread more evenly. But the 10 countries, which are set to join the EU, are poor. Unless the larger countries such as Germany and the UK are willing to cough up more funds there won't be very much money to go round. The new states will be expecting benefits such as cultural funding as part of the advantages of their new membership in the EU. So in the end the West will get less."

But is this really detrimental in assessing the impact of the EU's cultural programs? After all, the funds are only a fraction, less than five percent, of the EU's 93 billion euro annual budget. And as Newton Dunn admits, the responsibility for national cultural activities is the domain of the individual countries -- the EU cultural fund simply helps out when and where it can.

"We funded a large part of the restoration of the Acropolis, as it was the birth place of democracy and a good symbol of what the European Union stands for. Likewise German reunification was regarded as a good thing, so the EU gave some funds. But the real money there was given under Chancellor Kohl," Dunn told DW-WORLD.

Perhaps not everyone across Europe has the chance to directly benefit from the EU's money. There are undoubtedly flaws in the bureaucratic funding system, which could become even more acute after the EU's enlargement. There are also many worthy causes across the EU, and culture could take second place to other important issues such as helping Central Europe back onto its feet after August's devastating floods.

But enjoyment of free time and learning different languages and culture is becoming increasingly important in today's multi-cultural European society. So if the EU's culture pot continues to provide hope to the many media, theater and literary groups, which would have folded without its help, then most people in the EU agree that it is worth keeping the extra few cents the culture fund demands on Europe's taxes.

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