European Spaces of Culture


“The EU should rightfully claim a leading role in cultural relations”

In a high-level conference on 1 June 2021, EUNIC gathered more than 400 policymakers, representatives from the six European Spaces of Culture project teams, cultural relations experts and practitioners from all over the world to discuss the future of EU cultural relations.

What innovative models of cultural collaboration have the pilot projects of European Spaces of Culture identified? How does the project contribute to delivering the EU’s strategy for international cultural relations?

In a high-level conference on 1 June 2021, EUNIC gathered more than 400 policymakers, representatives from the six European Spaces of Culture project teams, cultural relations experts and practitioners from all over the world to discuss the future of EU cultural relations.

The pilot projects have demonstrated that European Spaces of Culture is an initiative that can truly create trust and understanding, bringing the EU’s relationships with the world forward in a way that is based on equal partnerships, mutual listening and learning and creating dialogue.

Key messages from the conference are to continue the project European Spaces of Culture as well as the existing activities on the ground. Furthermore, the model of European Spaces of Culture works on implementing the EU strategic approach to cultural relations, therefore the initiative should become a permanent tool of EU external action.

The conference was opened by EUNIC Vice President Guzmán Palacios (AECID), giving the context of the development of the EU approach to international cultural relations, and congratulating the six pilot project teams on their achievements, facing enormous challenges over the last year in implementing their projects.

Themis Christophidou, Director General Education, Youth, Sport and Culture celebrated the courage of all projects’ participants to continue the work despite the Covid-19 crisis as well as the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances and acknowledged the achievements of the project to be an excellent basis to build on. Furthermore, Mrs Christophidou underlined that it is a responsibility as well as an opportunity for the EU to meaningfully and respectfully continue exploring how to engage in international cultural relations with other parts of the world. She ended with one aspiration for the future, to let the European Spaces of Culture and the lessons that are drawn from it, help us “make cultural relations count in a post-crisis global society”.

We need dialogues, not lectures.

In a video message, Sabine Verheyen, Member of European Parliament & Chair of the Committee on Culture, highlighted the importance and effectiveness of partnerships on eye-to-eye level: “We need dialogues, not lectures.” Change will be more successful when it comes from people, rather than from governments. In our globalized world, external relations will become more and more important and Mrs Verheyen reiterated her strong believe that cultural dialogue will be a big part of European external policy, and that European Spaces of Culture can come in to further the European plans for external relations.

Opening panel: Taking cultural relations to the next level

The opening panel brought together colleagues who were directly working on the pilot projects of European Spaces of Culture, as well as external experts involved in the project, to discuss the achievements of the projects.

Natasha Ginwala, Artistic Director of Colomboscope, stated that Colomboscope, with a horizontal style of working together with a cross-section of cultural stakeholders in Sri Lanka and Europe, has enabled collective imagination to search forward, without fear, in plotting scenarios of emancipatory and daring pathways. Working between Europe and Sri Lanka enables to comprehend the transformative impact of pioneering cultural platforms as well as how long grown colonial legacies create blind spots in cultural diplomacy: “Striving for equitable and innovative alliances in cultural relations is necessary, not only from an ethical perspective, it is literally the only way for respectable co-existence among countries”. Natasha underlined that in contexts such as Sri Lanka, reliance on public funding comes at the cost of creative freedom and non-partisan views. Contemporary and genre-defying platforms such as Colomboscope align with European perspectives on the multifaceted role of contemporary culture and bear a visionary and socially responsible role in the daily life of network societies. Long term strategic support therefore should remain the goal, as in this part of the world.

Striving for equitable and innovative alliances in cultural relations is necessary, not only from an ethical perspective. It is literally the only way for respectable co-existence among countries.

Aleksandra Tor, Political, Press and Information Officer at the EU Delegation to Ethiopia, explained the objectives of Tibeb Be Adebabay: inclusiveness and raising awareness to change the perception of arts as something exclusive to something that people can access in their daily lives: “One of the main challenges in Ethiopia, and in particular Addis Abeba, it had become clear, is that there was limited participation in cultural programming of European cultural institutes. This meant we were doing something wrong!’ Furthermore, Aleksandra linked culture a great source of knowledge and to create awareness of complex issues such as migration and sustainable development. The main challenge of such an endeavour is then to bring culture from inside the institutes to the streets, which in this case was done in a hybrid way.

Martin Rauchbauer, Tech Ambassador Open Austria in San Francisco, explained how The Grid brought together groups of artists and technologists together and at the same time, empowering local creative partners in Silicon Valley that are not always on the winning side of the success story of technology. Main challenge of this project was to get non-cultural partners, especially tech companies, interested to participate. In the end, such companies proved willing to partner with The Grid, for instance by opening their Research & Development labs for artists to participate. High point of the project was the Exposure Art + Tech + policy festival, highlighting The Grid’s aim to expose technology’s vulnerability and bringing the worlds of culture, technology, and policy together.

One of the main challenges in Ethiopia and in particular Addis Ababa, it had become clear, is that there was limited local participation in cultural programming of cultural institutes. This meant we were doing something wrong!

Edina Bartalová, Policy Attaché at the EU Delegation to Mongolia, expressed the importance for the EU Delegation to Mongolia to be involved in the Nogoonbaatar Eco Art Festival, and how it created a unique way to engage with the local population in Ulaanbaatar, calling to attention the dangerous effects of air pollution, by using the common language of visual arts. The project has demonstrated that the Team Europe spirit can support cultural activities, thanks to the collaboration between the Delegation, EUNIC and local stakeholders. As the project has just started and will remain a permanent exhibition of the streets, it is now the aim to continue and move to other locations in Mongolia that face similar environmental issues.

The two pilot projects that went for a cross-border approach, Triángulo Teatro in Central America and Urban Cult Lab’Africa in West Africa, were presented by two videos. Triángulo Teatro is a programme of theatrical performances which revolve around the contemporary interpretation of European dramatic art. The Urban Cult Lab’Africa project has brought six fab labs – digital fabrication laboratories – in West Africa together to co-design cultural events including artists’ residencies, live events, and exhibitions. Watch both videos here.

Yemisi Mokuolu, CEO of Hatch Africa and jury member of European Spaces of Culture, congratulated the pilot projects and stated that they have taken the jury’s aspiration to a level that could not be imagined beforehand. Explaining the process of selection, the aspiring teams showed that they were well aligned with the vision and philosophy of European Spaces of Culture.

The EU should rightfully claim a leading role in cultural relations.

Julia Sattler, independent cultural relations expert and former Director if Goethe-Institut Addis Ababa, presented a preview of the policy recommendations that are being drafted to ensure the future of European Spaces of Culture. Julia explained the research done, conducting interviews with pilot project participants from the points of view from the local partners, EUNIC members and EU Delegations. Important findings of her research include that there is limited communication about the new EU strategy for international cultural relations, as set against the tradition of cultural diplomacy, that all project teams had the freedom and flexibility to design their projects based on local needs and opportunities and that such intercultural and multi-institutional big collaborations that are the heart of every European Spaces of Culture project are by nature very complex. The olicy recommendations will be refined based on the results of the conference and will be published soon on this website.

Synch sessions: Cultural relations in practice

The conference continued with four subpanels in synch, each zooming in on relevant topics that define the future of cultural relations and showcase different policy objectives that cultural relations can accommodate. The synch sessions brought together artists, academics, policy makers and cultural relations experts discussing the importance of cultural relations for four different topics:

  • Cultural relations, sustainability, and the European Green Deal
  • Cultural relations and digital innovation
  • Cultural relations and peace and stability
  • Cultural relations to strengthen cultural rights and freedom of expression

Recordings of all synch sessions are available here.

Closing panel: The role of culture in the future of EU external action

The closing panel of the conference looked ahead: What will the future approach of the EU for culture in external action look like as part of the EU’s role as a global actor? What can the EU learn from other regions of the world, and how can culture bring the EU forward in building its partnerships with the world?

In the keynote statement of the conference, Stefano Sannino, Secretary General of the European External Action Service, stated that, with as young a structure the EEAS is, much is to be developed in the work of EU international cultural relations and how to create a Team Europe spirit. Mr Sannino touched on the connection between culture and sustainable and economic development, as well as dealing with the colonial past. Whereas restitution remains a Member State competence, dialogue, capacity building and cooperation should in the long run be fostered from European level. Mr Sannino ended by stating that “the European Union and the EEAS need to strengthen international cultural relations”, and that European Spaces of Culture is an important element in the EU toolbox.

The European Union and the EEAS need to strengthen international cultural relations.

In a video statement, Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Special Advisor to EU HR/VP Josep Borrell, brought culture in external action to the wider perspective, under the idea of EU foreign policy bringing together different policy fields, including culture. Mrs Tocci put the spotlight on the notion of resilience, a key theme in fragile contexts, in which culture can play a prominent role, but also in health and economic policy, but perhaps the most crucial, political resilience. Culture and cultural policy has to feature prominently in bilateral relations between the EU and partner countries, but also in the relationship with non-state actors and of course in multilateral cooperation.

Salima Yenbou, Member of European Parliament and member of CULT and AFET committees, underlined the importance to have culture on the agenda especially after the pandemic. While structures are in place at Member State level to implement cultural relations, Mrs Yenbou expressed that a strong structure is missing at the EEAS and coordination between the European Commission services needs to be improved. She expressed the hope that the EEAS can provide the key to reinforce cultural relations. She furthermore expressed that in order to implement culture in external action, it is vital that civil society participates. From talks with civil society in the Mediterranean area and in Africa, Mrs Yenbou senses that EU funding programmes do not necessarily reflect the local need. "It is impossible to create equitable partnerships if our work on cultural relations does not take into account the needs of our partners". For the continuation of European Spaces of Culture, the idea is to launch new initiatives together with the European Commission and today’s conference helped us all to go in that direction.

It is impossible to create equitable partnerships if our work on cultural relations does not take into account the needs of our partners

Listening to the needs of our partners was much reflected also by Kimani Njogu, cultural policy expert from Kenya. Kimani states that if we all agree that culture is essential to the EU’s external relations, it is imperative that platforms such as created by European Spaces of Culture are supported sustainably, towards global sharing and understanding of not European values, but human values. The deliberate and strategic utilisation of cultural and creative industries, contribute to the promotion of human rights, equality, etc. tapping into mutual listening and learning as one of the key values of EU cultural partnerships with other parts of the world, Kimani states: "Are you listening to us? I don't think you are listening enough!"

Are you listening to us? I don't think you are listening enough!

Kateryna Botanova, Cultural critic and curator, Jury member European Spaces of Culture, underlined that the originality of European Spaces of Culture has been this practice of equal partnerships, and that is crucial that we do not forget that there is still structural inequality of resources, decision making powers and subjectivity. This needs careful but consistent decolonization, meaning accepting different models that exist worldwide. Only with durational process-based collaborations can real mutual learning and listening take place. Furthermore, cultural operators often work in dangerous circumstances, including for their lives. In such circumstances, partnerships can be volatile and this requires open-minded, flexible and caring approach to cultural relations. As former jury member, Kateryna expressed that was strived for with European Spaces of Culture in the end was actually demonstrated.

With European Spaces of Culture we have identified a powerful model for future of the cultural relations of the EU. Let's take it forward together.

EUNIC Director Gitte Zschoch closed the panel, starting with taking stock of where we are five years after the launch of the EU strategic approach to cultural relations. European Spaces of Culture has demonstrated to be the main programme to carry this forward. The approach of European Spaces of Culture, based on the core values of the strategic approach, is the model that works. Main learnings from the project are firstly the experience that colleagues on the ground had in opening a free space of creation and collaboration, that was clearly seen as new to the EU. Secondly, the values we base our partnerships on, are shared values. This shows the potential of European Spaces of Culture on the geopolitical stage. Perhaps not always 100% successful in listening to our partners just yet, this project is moving all partners forward as the pilot projects are developed and implemented together with local partners. Ending with the innovative aspect of European Spaces of Culture, Gitte states that the innovative aspect lies in the approach: reaching equality in partnerships. European cutural relations is indeed raised to the next level, but they need to be brought to an even higher level: broader implementation, larger and more flexible budgets.

The panel was closed by one wish for change to build even more trusted, more reliable global cultural partnerships. Notable responses were to remove as many barriers as we can to create common ground, a viable eco-system even without EU funds, democratising access to technologies and push towards fairness, extend horizons of funding and timing, and creating a strong habit of working together.

Rewatch all sessions on the EUNIC YouTube channel.



  • Cultural relations
  • EU
  • EUNIC
  • EU Relations
  • European Spaces of Culture
  • Policy
  • Panel discussion

Watch the pilot project videos here

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