European cultural heritage

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July 2, 2013 by Silvana Bolocan

The subject matter of the “European cultural heritage” may seem frivolous amid political controversies over the NSA’s surveillance programme, which has crossed the Atlantic to prompt strong reactions by EU politicians. The EU Commissioner Vivienne Reding has called for discussions with US counterparts over the programme and the European Parliament President, M. Schultz has even gone as far as to say that the future free-trade negotiations are endangered by this scandal. It is hard to say whether the scandal will affect – and how serious – the coming negotiations.

However, this is not the subject of this post, as serious as the matter may be. The possible consequence could be to put the subject on the negotiating table. It is up to the teams of experts from both sides of the Atlantic to engage in the process of sorting out potential problems of a legal nature and else, arising from the application of this programme. Instead, I would call attention to a quote from Herman van Rompuy’s speech on the occasion of launching the EU-US negotiations: “What is at stake with a trans-Atlantic free trade area is to enshrine Europe and America’s role as the world’s standard status beyond product specifications by setting a positive force in shaping the way we work and the way we live our daily lives. This is of key strategic significance, ladies and gentlemen; the Atlantic is not the past, it is also the future.”

It is difficult to grasp exactly what van Rompuy meant by the “positive force” to shape lives, which is of “key strategic significance”. Obviously, the reference to the “world’s standard status” point unequivocally to international standard setting in conducting trade and investment agreements. A commonly agreed standard set by the EU and the US in their bilateral trade and investment relations will put pressure on potential bilateral negotiations on investment treaties with China (that both the EU and the US are considering).

Nonetheless, it is also a statement that seem to point also to that level of a cultural setting which deals with ideals, values, visions of good life, that give energy and direction to human behaviour. Because of its vagueness, his words seem to point to matters which do not make the subject of negotiation in a trade agreement. This does opens an inquisitive path of thinking in a different area of the Atlantic relation – the sensitive, rather than the rational.

Europe is a nest of cultural heritage, defined not necessarily by its historical depth, but by its diversity. In a relatively small geographical space the continent accomodates numerous langugages, historical experiences, political and social systems and modes of interaction. Shortly put, “cultures”. As a result, it benefits from a wealth of diverse cultural products (works of art, institutions, values and ideas of good life, symbols, modes of interaction). The European continent resembles a sort of a laboratory where philosophical and aesthetic movements emerged, spread across the nations and became consumed and replaced by new ones.

This pool of human experience and cultural wealth has been developed over historical time and in deep interaction, that all too often was confrontational. The site of fierce fights throughout history and theatre of war over the two world wars, Europe, in its diversity now also has in place a functioning and most complex system of decision-making at supranational level.

As puzzling as it may have seem at the time when the EU received the Nobel prize for peace, it was exactly for this contribution, as a system, to solving contentious issues across cultures. The current system has managed to keep things under control and to offer a lasting peace. This is the greatest achievement of the EU.

This wealth of positive human experience in interaction, which embodies politics and institutions, belongs inseparably to the EU. It is part of it and what defines it. The European continent is, in this sense, a cultural concept, embodied in a multitude and diverse cultural products (from values, ideals, symbols, to supra-national institutions put in place to manage political decision, down to a multitude of national political and social systems and an even larger diversity of sub-national and local “cultures”).

This is a way of looking at H. van Rompuy’s statement that would make sense – from the EU’s side, at least – of the “positive force” in preserving the “way of life”. This cultural setting undoubtedly underwrites the negotiating positions and the sensitivities, as well as the concern to maintain the relevance of what lies under the supra-national level of decision-making, in this coming shift of trade opening across the Atlantic.

And to complete this picture, the immense reservoir of cultural products, that the EU possesses constitutes a non-negligible asset. In an international environment dominated by economic and financial difficulties there are many voices that call for stimulating innovation as part of the solution to dealing with these difficulties. And innovation grows best in a rich pool of cultural products.


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