European Capitals of Culture: building bridges or a marketing ploy?
Can international cultural initiatives such as the EU programme ‘European Capitals of Culture’ create a counter-balance to the much-cited political crisis in the European Union, giving citizens a shared feeling of belonging to Europe? Or are they simply being used as nothing more than a marketing ploy aimed at promoting tourism? Cultural geographers at FAU are following the debates being held in German cities in their bid to be named capital of culture in 2025 in a project financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG).
The ‘European Capitals of Culture’ is an initiative launched in the 1980s by the Greek Minister for Culture Melina Mercouri, with a view to creating cultural platforms to offset the purely economical focus of the European unification process, focusing instead on a shared cultural identity within Europe.
Whether this purpose has been met and can still be met is a matter of some controversy. Whilst critics claim the initiative has been degraded to nothing more than a PR and marketing show, those in favour see it as providing a stage for a discussion of the contribution cultural projects can make to a common Europe. The DFG project which has just been started at the Institute of Geography at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) investigating ‘The European Capitals of Culture programme from the potentially conflicting perspectives of local-urban and international cultural policies’ is accompanying German cities in their bid for the title in 2025, with the intention of providing empirical evidence and research on which to base the evaluation.
Accompanying cities through all the steps in their application
Whilst research projects until now have focused on the application process after it has been completed, the cultural geographers from Erlangen, led by PD Dr. Thomas Schmitt, have chosen to analyse the present state of affairs and observe the ongoing processes. ‘Our intention is not to give cities any helpful suggestions, but rather to take an open, impartial approach to observing and analysing their bid for the title,’ Schmitt explains. The aim is to gain a new insight into the role culture can play in cities and how the idea of Europe can be expressed in cultural events.
Whilst the scientists are still at the beginning of their project, some interesting aspects have already come to light since the project was launched in autumn. Thomas Schmitt says, ‘one aspect which took us by surprise was how seriously the German cities prepare for their bid to become the European capital of culture. Hours of thought are devoted to the venture, with citizens’ initiatives getting involved and new staff hired to bring plans to fruition.’ And one other aspect appears rather unusual: instead of ruthless competition, the cities submitting an application seem to take a more cooperative approach, inviting each other to various events.
The European capital of culture initiative
The European capital of culture initiative is designed to promote cultural diversity in Europe, the common aspects shared by the various cultures in Europe and the feeling of belonging to Europe. The initiative is supported by Creative Europe, a programme run by the European Commission which awards all European capitals of culture with the Melina Mercouri prize of 1.5 million euros. Since the programme was launched, at least one European city has been named European capital of culture every year. Germany has also taken part, with Berlin (1988), Weimar (1999) and the region “Essen and the Ruhrgebiet” (2010) all having held the title. Now, in 2025, it is Germany’s turn again. Some of the cities currently preparing a bid are Chemnitz, Dresden, Hannover, Hildesheim, Kassel, Magdeburg and Nuremberg.
PD Dr. Thomas Schmitt