Speech by Princess Laurentien of The Netherlands

Lissabon, Portugal, 26 September 2007

as President of the European Cultural Foundation, organised at the occasion of the EU Presidency of Portugal.


Excellency, Ladies and gentlemen, friends of culture,
Recently I was struck by a commercial advertisement entitled 'open to change' in a special edition of a leading US political magazine. Against a visually highly creative background, it reads: "healthy cultures nurture creativity. They help breathe life into the people who live within them. And also: "healthy culture welcomes dissent: it listens for the sound of new voices and supports original imaginations. And then - this is my favourite: "healthy cultures are full of artists. When hope dies, so does creativity. When culture is lost, so is the future."

We no doubt all agree that open cultural expressions are a precondition for free societies and, equally, that cultural expressions per se provide meaning to our existence. Artists are essential to our future. They are as diverse as the creativity that they express. They are bearers of provocation, beauty and inspiration. They are change agents and provide deeper insights and even comfort. Less than 20 years ago it was a dream that the cold war would end and Europe would be reunited. Artists imagined that dream in their works - and many engaged in making it come true. Less than 10 years ago, an alarming new divide emerged between cultures and religions, globally and in our communities. Many artists play an important role in making us understand and overcome this divide.
Fifty years ago, reconciliation of Europe's nations was not taken for granted. It was then that a group of visionary individuals founded the European Cultural Foundation to promote cultural cooperation across all borders and boundaries. I am delighted to be here as President of the ECF. As an independent foundation, we advocate a new alliance between civil society, national and European authorities as well as the private sector to acknowledge the importance of culture and the arts for the social fabric of our continent.
In a globalising world, Europe has become a complex interplay between diverse people and peoples. For the sake of our children, we need to invest in the future common good, and in our joint capacities to tackle the unexpected. It is our responsibility to make Europe not only more efficient, but also more inclusive. We need to educate the next generations on the challenges ahead in terms of knowledge and employability, but also on being cultured and responsible citizens. It is up to us to safeguard and develop the specificity of Europe, its tremendously rich cultures, impregnated by our history of failures and progress.

I applaud the Portuguese EU Presidency to organise this first ever Cultural Forum. It provides us with an excellent and much needed opportunity to sit around the table for a structured and focused dialogue. Much needed, because "the cultural sector" - if there is such a thing - is unique in its individualism and fragmentation, as we all know. This inherent fragmentation is a blessing in that it demonstrates the rich diversity of cultural expressions across Europe. But our fragmentation is also a curse. We need to face the challenges of a world where knowledge, communication, people, products and creativity know fewer and fewer boundaries. We need to grab the economic and other opportunities a borderless market such as Europe provides. Let us face these challenges and opportunities, by joining forces, by listening and by making our voices heard.

We need to adjust to the reality of more cross-border interaction, and to the very need for intercultural dialogue if we want our cultures to remain healthy. Sharing information, recognising each other's arts degrees, encouraging and facilitating mobility of artists, for instance by breaking down tax (and other) barriers, across borders…. all such initiatives are in the interest of us all. To mention just a few of the many examples of cross-border initiatives, platforms and tools:

  • the LabforCulture, the virtual tool to share cultural information;
  • the new internet-based intercultural dialogue instrument Rhiz.eu.
  • the Compendium, an expanding Europe-wide information and monitoring system on cultural policy measures, instruments, debates and cultural trends.

Then there's the Civil Society Platform for Intercultural Dialogue - many of you are one of the 100 or so organisations from dozens of countries active on the platform. It functions as a marketplace to share effective intercultural dialogue practices and engage with the political process under the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 and beyond. The Platform thinks and acts outside the box in another respect: it brings together organisations not only from the field of arts and culture, but also from youth and social affairs, education and learning, human rights, anti-racism, minority rights and inter-religious dialogue.

The ECF welcomes the efforts to reflect upon the role of culture in the European Union in a more cohesive way and to develop a European cultural strategy that goes beyond "cultural policies by default". The ECF supports the Communication of the European Commission as an important first step towards offering new ways of achieving progress and new tools of joining forces while fully appreciating subsidiarity.

So, there're no shortage of ideas, initiatives and good practices that mobilise the cultural players across Europe and aim to work together more closely. Such initiatives need support. The dialogue over the coming days will hopefully help further shape the vision, preconditions and priorities for us all in making our increased cooperation a reality. It's an excellent opportunity to step out of our comfort zones. We should dare to ask ourselves and each other the critical questions, explore ways to become more focused and examine new partnerships, for instance with business. Businesses are increasingly operating across borders, so they are partners par excellence. It is our responsibility to draw them in. If we can make this Cultural Forum work for us all, it can perhaps become a regular platform for exchange and cooperation, also with players from outside the cultural field. It can certainly given another impetus to the cultural agenda-setting for Europe and to the momentum created by the Commission Communication. If we believe in the need for dialogue, then it's up to us to define what that need is. It will help us focus.

The ECF does what it can to promote and facilitate cross-border cultural cooperation. We actively support the 2008 Year of Intercultural Dialogue through grants and special programmes, festivals and publications, gathered around our focus on the "experience of diversity and the power of culture". The ECF was one of the instigators of the Civil Society Platform that I mentioned earlier. And we have mobilised resources from partner foundations and the Dutch charitable lotteries for artistic flagships projects and virtual tools for sharing, such as the LabforCulture, and Rhiz.eu. The ECF has also highlighted the need for quicker results on cross-border cooperation in the context of the Commission's vision. We are delighted with the recent approval by the Cultural Committee of the European Parliament of a pilot project aimed at stimulating artistic mobility of the young talents of Europe. We are now actively searching to complement such an EU pilot by private means. I hope that we will be able to present results already during the EU Presidency of Slovenia.

While realising that I'm preaching to the converted, I'd like to reiterate a few points that we need to preach to the non-converted. An active role for civil society in advocating and fostering cross-border cultural exchanges and dialogue is a win-win situation for all. It's much needed, and it's needed now.

  • Culture is much more than a commercial commodity, however important creative industry is for our competitiveness, and investment in it.
  • Culture is much more than an instrument for a more effective foreign policy, or for social change and inclusion of minorities, however useful culture is for mutual understanding.
  • Culture is unlike anything else: we are culture and culture is us. It is the heart of our societies.
  • And art and artists should not need to justify themselves. They need freedom and support, as art is the most complex and at the same time moving embodiment of our human aspirations.

"When culture is lost, so is the future." I strongly believe that we can only preserve that culture if we join forces to advocate, constantly refresh and invest in the rich diversity of our cultures. Putting into practice a cultural agenda for Europe is the responsibility of us all. Together with you, the ECF is ready to face the challenge.

Thank you.