Cultural policy | Europe

Welcome to the club!

In the light of the Ukraine war, Europe needs to allow new countries to join and also strengthen its cultural policy. After all, the European Union is first and foremost a cultural project

On a globe directed to Europe in green. The sea shown in blue. On the left a Welcome lettering in yellow. A woman in a wheelchair from behind and another person from behind are looking at the globe.

Welcome to the European Union


The war in Ukraine has fueled a bonfire of certainties. Taboos have fallen in rapid succession. In response to Russia’s aggression, Finland and Sweden have shed their longstanding neutrality; Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and other EU countries are raising their defence spending; the EU is emerging as a serious force in military planning and spending; Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have applied for EU membership. Europe is changing faster and more fundamentally than at any other point since the fall of the Berlin Wall 33 years ago.

Russia’ 2014 annexation of the Crimea and its 2022 war on Ukraine hold a fundamental, bitter lesson. The inviolability of borders, that cornerstone of international law and of the post-1945 European order, has proven an illusion. Whereas the conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s could be regarded as a localised exception to the rule, Russia’s invasion of its sovereign neighbour shows that the rule itself is broken. Europe’s post-1989 peace dividend has evaporated, and history is back with a vengeance.

The shockwaves will reverberate across the continent for decades to come. Beyond and above responding effectively and generously to Ukraine’s immediate needs, Europe finds itself confronted with three existential questions. First, how to build an inclusive, stable post-war pan-European order – one that will include Ukraine and other countries, including in the Balkans? Second: How to reform and strengthen the European Union as the cornerstone of that wider order? And third, how to defend and promote Europe’s core values and interests of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law?

“Ultimately, this war is about the future of Europe as a whole. It is a fight about what it means to be European. It is a fight about what it means to be European.”

The war in Ukraine is about more than Ukraine. Ultimately, this war is about the future of Europe as a whole. It is a fight about what it means to be European.The first issue EU countries need to address is whether they want Ukraine to win the war. As so often, this raises the question what Germany wants. Currently, Germany’s position is unclear. Chancellor Scholz says he does not want Russia to win, but he has not said he wants Ukraine to win. Italy seems to be even less committed: its call for a cease-fire (on top of its reluctance to provide heavy weapons) suggested it could live with Russia occupying large parts of Ukraine. Should President Putin declare victory and propose peace talks, hoping to divide the EU, would European unity hold?

The second issue facing EU leaders is how to help Ukraine rebuild. Russia may have failed to defeat Ukraine militarily, it has succeeded in destroying Ukraine’s economy. Long-term reconstruction costs are estimated to exceed €500 billion. Who will pay for this, and how?  European leaders are faced with a dilemma. Should they ask their taxpayers to shoulder the burden, risking a backlash at the next election? Or should they allow the EU to raise extra funds on the capital markets, as they did to pay for Europe’s €750 billion COVID recovery plan? This is what the European Commission has proposed. But anything that includes the word “Schulden” is politically toxic in Denmark, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the problem should not be overstated. As Achim Truger, one of Germany’s economic ‘wise men’, noted: although €500bn sounds like a lot of money, it represents only 3 percent of the European economy.  

Thirdly, any reconstruction aid to Ukraine must go hand in hand with legal and political reforms. Before the war corruption was endemic: Ukraine ranked 122th (out of 180 countries) on Transparency International’s 2021 corruption perception index. Oligarchs wielded disproportionate economic and political power. EU aid should be conditional on sustainable, effective reforms and channeled through an independent international agency, not a politically managed EU trust fund.

“Putin knows that a successful, affluent and democratic European Ukraine would directly challenge his domestic power base”

Prior to the war, not many EU leaders supported Ukraine’s wish to join the EU. Some even rejected it. In 2016 Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte argued that "Ukraine should have a good relationship with Europe and Russia. And that would not be possible if it was part of the European Union.” As late as March 2022 Rutte maintained that “it is premature to talk about EU membership.” France, too, appears skeptical.  Most Europeans are more positive. A Eurobarometer survey carried out in April 2022 showed that 66% want Ukraine to join the EU when it is ready (30% totally agree; 36% tend to agree).

Meanwhile EU leaders have  decided  to open accession negotiations. They were right to do so. Ukraine is fighting for the right to be a European country; Ukraine is fighting for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – the core values of the European Union. For these reasons alone Ukraine has earned to right to start accession talks. But there is a third, and equally important geopolitical argument. Putin fears what Ukraine could become. He knows that a successful, affluent and democratic European Ukraine would act as a magnet on Russia’s public opinion, directly challenging his domestic power base. Conversely, the stakes for the EU are equally high. The more successful Ukraine becomes, the greater the chance that the Russians will want to follow Ukraine’s example. If Europe wants to help Russia become a democracy, it must start by reaching out to Ukraine.

But the EU must do more. It must also reform itself. Ukraine is not the only country applying to join. Accession negotiations have already opened with Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo are “potential candidates”; Georgia and Moldova are also knocking at the door. The EU cannot possibly take on board 10 extra countries without fundamentally reforming itself. Decision-making in the Council will grind to a halt unless countries largely give up their right of veto. A Commission of 37 equal members would be a powerless talking shop, and the quality of the Court’s jurisprudence would be seriously affected. This implies Treaty change, something many EU governments oppose. But muddling through is not an option. Before it can enlarge, the EU will have to be rethought and redesigned. A larger EU must be a stronger EU, not a modern version of the League of Nations.

So: what about President Macron’s idea of a European confederation, a sort of parking space for potential new EU member states (plus the UK)? Most likely it will prove a non-starter. It neither meets the hopes of the applicants nor the concerns of the current member states. That said, there is a clear need to reform the accession negotiations. This process can now take 10 years or more. Some applicants, such as Serbia, simply stall on rule of law reforms, gambling that the EU will ultimately be prepared to grant membership for political reasons. To obtain genuine reforms the EU needs some new and politically attractive cards to play. One promising idea is to build in some intermediate steps between non-membership and full membership. Such staged accession, with each step conditional on political and economic reforms, could improve the EU’s leverage and speed up the process.  

“To leave culture out of the Europe’s Marshall Plan for Ukraine would be a historic mistake”

In 2017 EU ministers called for an “integrated, comprehensive and step-by-step EU strategic approach to international cultural relations”. In 2021 they went a step further, and adopted a common approach to cultural heritage in conflicts and crises. If ever there was an urgent need for such a joined-up approach, it is now. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian musicians, actors, writers, film-makers, architects, curators and other cultural workers have lost their livelihood. Many have been forced into exile. At least 260 museums, archives, monuments and other culturally important sites have been damaged. President Putin even denies that Ukrainian culture exists. The EU must respond with courage and imagination. Ukraine urgently needs European solidarity to help artists at risk, to protect and restore cultural heritage, and to rebuild its cultural sector. EU policy should also include Belarus and Moldova.

Several EU countries, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands have taken steps to support Ukrainian (and Russian) cultural refugees and displaced persons. So have private organizations, such as the European Cultural Foundation, the Prince Claus Fund, Artists at Risk, and others. Separately, organizations such as ICOM and ALIPH have taken steps to help protect heritage at risk, as have Germany, Italy, and others.

What is missing, so far, is a joint, EU initiative. Although the European Commission announced some EU financial support for mobility of artists, it has taken no action to secure a coordinated, European response to support Ukrainian artists or Ukrainian heritage at risk. No lessons appear to have been learned from Afghanistan, when the Commission and the European External Action Service also failed to coordinate cultural relief efforts, in spite of their promise to deliver “a more coordinated approach to international cultural relations.”

Cultural policy must not remain the weakest link in EU policy towards Ukraine. Together with national governments, Brussels must prepare an action plan to help Ukraine’s cultural sector recover. The plan should cover, at a minimum, four areas: emergency aid for refugees and internally displaced persons; measures to restore tangible heritage; generous support for collaborative projects and exchanges between Ukrainian artists and artists from the EU, and institutional twinning between EU and Ukrainian galleries, museums, theatres and other cultural agencies. Funding for these initiatives, which should have a five to ten year horizon, should be an integral part of the EU’s ‘RebuildUkraine’ Facility. To leave culture out of the Europe’s Marshall Plan for Ukraine would be a historic mistake.  

The European Union is first and foremost a cultural project. The union’s founding values—respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights—are essentially cultural. Ukrainians are fighting for these values. We must do no less. We should give Ukraine our full support.

This article was published first in Kulturaustausch, print edition 3/2022. It has been updated on July 13 to include the EU decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.