The European Capital of Culture: an efficient way to promote a European citizenship?

This article is part of the project « Art & Europe », in partnership with Sciences Po Paris. The aim is to make students think on European identity through the medium of art and culture.

When thinking about the European Union’s cultural manifestations, the event of “European Capital of Culture” (ECOC) is what usually comes to mind. However, we should ask whether the efforts of creating a common European culture, which is basically done with the help of institutions and official events of the EU, has been a real success, or has it rather stayed as a distant project for the European citizens? The idea of this article is to explore, whether the ECOC, with its noble initial objectives, has rather become an instrument for the cities to generate economic and social profits than to promote the idea of European citizenship.

From the modest first steps to a more coordinated cultural action

The initiative for the program goes back to 1983, when the Greek minister Melina Mercouri wanted, with the support of the European Commission, to set up concrete measures to promote the cohesion of European citizenship. So far, the cooperation of the member states in cultural politics had been pretty modest. The program of the European Capital of Culture is based on article 167 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which gives the Union the mandate to « contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore ». The Union shall also encourage « cooperation between Member States » in the field of culture and « if necessary, support and supplement their action ». Since the beginning, the title of the European Capital of Culture has been rather symbolic, however with clearly conveyed objectives: these were, for example, to enrich the European cultural diversity, to celebrate the relations which unify the Europeans, to create a meeting-place for the Europeans coming from different backgrounds, and finally, to enforce the feeling of a European citizenship. These missions are defined on the site of European Commission, where they highlight the importance of positive externalities which can result for the profit of the organizing city: improving a city’s cultural offerings and enforcing its visibility on the international level. However, one should keep in mind that the European Union does not possess effective measures when it comes to common cultural politics: the rule of unanimity imposes when deciding cultural related issues. This idea is in keeping with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

Use of the ECOC for different means

The ECOC program has not had the same degree of influence in all host cities. According to Richards (2008), the origins of the Cultural Capital event were arguably purely cultural. The event was designed to bring the peoples of the member states closer together through the expression of a common European culture, with its rich cultural diversity. The aims of the event were basically twofold: first to make the culture of the cities accessible to a European audience, and to create a picture of European culture as a whole. However, as the event has developed, it has been used in different ways by the cities, either to support, extend or challenge the original Cultural Capital concept. For example, the first nominated city, Athens in 1985 concentrated on big foreign names in its programme, whereas Florence, one year after, highlighted its own historical patrimony. In 1987, Amsterdam wanted to create an image of itself as first and foremost as a European city.

In 1990, the selection of Glasgow proved to be a turning point in the nomination of the cultural capital: for the first time, the chosen capital was not an established cultural city. The selection of Glasgow meant a radical change: it was the first city which used ECOC as a way of accelerating urban regeneration. This translated into an economic more than cultural development: the culture had become an instrument to generate economic incomes. The decisions were made on the basis of potential business returns, media coverage and tourist appeal rather than community development and self-expression, underlines García (2004). At this point, the noble objectives of promotion of European culture were practically ignored.

Cultural cooperation or rather a rivalry to generate more incomes?

García points out, that the European Capital of Culture has proved to be a real “Trojan horse” when promoting the European culture: in reality, the cities are using culture as a tool to promote the cities individually, with an accentuated city competition, whilst at the same time celebrating an official version of the European urban renaissance. Also Richards foster the idea how the ECOC has become a means of stimulating economic development of improving the image of cities to attract investment. When the ECOC became more popular and reputed among the member states and cultural professionals, a real competition between cities started to emerge. Jukka Saukkolin, who was the responsible for the development and research in the project of Turku 2011, underlines the same thing: at the stage of the preselection, a real competition occurred between the candidate cities, as they were choosing different kind of strategies in order to be chosen by the ministry. However, these strategies fostered by the candidate cities were essentially local by their nature, and the European character was mainly neglected. What is interesting, continues Saukkolin, is how this local character of the event was strongly imprinted by the locals as well:  for example the local media, in the early stage of the program, was critical against the launch of the event, as it was seen as something that would bring and impose European values; as a process where the local culture will be dismissed. This character is interesting when thinking about the initial idea consecrated to the programme: if the local people fear that it will impose its European values, we can only ask how long-awaited and appreciated this programme can be, from the point of European citizens themselves?

Insufficient participation of European officials

Saukkolin continues that even in the pragmatic realization of the event, the European dimension was conspicuous by its absence. Especially in the initial phase of the programme, the role of the Commission proved to be quite distant: the candidate cities had free hands in deciding whether the programming will focus on the European dimension or more on the local one. According to Saukkolin, the European character was not very visible during the realization of the event: apart from the official symbols of the European Union, who had their visual place in the realization. However, this was more or less all of it: proactive evaluations by the Commission, as well as a general discussion around the program were absent. As García points out, the evaluation of cities when hosting the event relies entirely on the willingness of host cities to produce final reports. As a consequence, the impact of the programme, for example when promoting European culture, is not efficiently evaluated, and results in unquestioned myths concerning the values of hosting the title.

Towards a fostered European dimension?

After all, it seems that European officials are starting to realize that the measures which were carried out in the 1980s are serving other goals than initially intended. The European Commission, in its proposal concerning the European Union’s action for the European Capitals of Culture for the years 2020 to 2033, highlights the fact that evaluations have shown that “in some of the past Capitals, the European dimension was not well understood and could have been more visible”. At the moment, a debate is on concerning the new legislation applicable from the year 2020 onward: these measures should allow the consolidation of the European character of the event, with cemented measures of the European institutions when monitoring the actions of the host cities. In practice, the Commission proposes for example that the cities should make clear in their communication material that the European Capital of Culture is an initiative of the Union. Indeed, if this is one of the objectives for the time being, we can only question the effectiveness of the programme. However, the major challenge is still convincing the audience and the local people of the values associated to this programme: if it is still seen as something that imposes values, the progress made in the last thirty years is far from being eminent. More generally this questions the impact of the creation of a European citizenship with official institutions and programmes; perhaps a resounding European citizenship and common culture will be created at grass roots level with real solidarity between citizens.


Sini Rinne-Kanto

Sciences Po Master of European Affairs



– Interview with Mr. Jukka Saukkolin, the responsible for the development and research in the project of Turku 2011.

– European Commission: Proposal for a DECISION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL establishing a Union action for the European Capitals of Culture for the years 2020 to 2033. Available at <>.

– Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Available at <>.

– García, Beatriz: Cultural Policy and Urban Regeneration in Western Europe Cities: Lessons from experience, Prospects for the Future. Local Economy, Vol. 19, No. 4, 312-236, November 2004.

– Richards, Greg: The European Cultural Capital Event: Strategic Weapon in the Cultural Arms Race?. Journal of Cultural Policy 6(2), 159-181.

Sini Rinne-Kanto