The World’s Most Unlikely Cultural Success Story

by Chris Richardson

The European Union (EU) recently announced that it would reopen its external borders to travelers from certain countries, based on their performance in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has become familiar with this sort of unified message from the European Union. While not always easily reached, such collective decisions are one of the world’s most striking examples of multiple cultures working together to achieve a common goal. But then “culture” as a concept is as politically important to the EU - which functions primarily as a trade bloc - as any of its internal and external commercial agreements. Indeed, in the year 2000, the EU officially adopted the phrase “unity in diversity” as its trans-national motto. In this article, I will look at how this came about, and why it is so unique - especially at the time of a global pandemic.


The Original Vision

It is useful to first look at why the EU exists at all. It was set up with the lofty aim of ending the frequent and bloody conflicts between European neighbors. The culmination of these was the Second World War, which left over twenty million civilians dead on the streets of “The Old Continent”. The basic premise therefore of the EU is to promote integration in a historically volatile space. The logic being that countries with an economic dependence on each other are far less likely to go to war. This in itself facilitates shared Democracy, prosperity and security - and thus stability - among European citizenry.

The EU today is an economic and political union between twenty-seven member countries that together cover much of the continent. Beyond being an economic federation, it has evolved into an organization spanning such policy areas from climate, environment, justice and migration. The EU has delivered more than half a century of harmony, to what was for centuries a militarily deadly and socially intolerant region. On the commercial side, the EU is now the biggest single exporter of manufactured goods and services on earth and is the biggest import market for over one hundred countries around the world. What makes this so remarkable, is that an array of cultures - even within member countries - has been involved in achieving this.


A Cultural Overview

The cultural divergence within the EU should not be underestimated. Although as well as looking at it through an anthropological lens, it is interesting to note how the observations of Europeans about their everyday lives reflect cultural differences around the continent.

A continent-wide survey conducted by the EU put a number of questions to citizens in every member country. Let’s look at the concept of culture - as seen by them in general terms - first of all:

  • 89% of citizens within the twenty-seven member countries think that cultural exchanges should have a very important place in the EU, so that citizens from different member countries can learn more from each other and feel more European.
  • 88% of EU citizens think that cultural exchanges can play an important role in developing greater understanding and tolerance in the world, even where there are conflicts or tensions.

Given that this was the response from ordinary and randomly questioned people, the EU can be commended in setting an example of tolerance for the entire world. However, when one digs a little deeper into how Europeans define culture on the continent that they share, wider discrepancies remain.

Two broad questions were put to the respondents:

“What particular value is best embodied by the EU...?”

  • The most frequent response in Cyprus (74%) and Germany (73%) was “Peace”, while this was considered as such by 57% of respondents EU-wide.
  • “Freedom of opinion” was the commonplace response in Denmark (79%), while this response was cited by 54% of respondents EU-wide.
  • Among Finns, the preeminent European value - at 81% - was “Social equality and solidarity” (versus 53% EU-wide).
  • “Respect for history and its lessons” was - at 56% - the most frequent response in Italy (versus 43% EU-wide).
  • “Respect for nature and the environment” was cited by 68% of Cypriots as Europe’s preeminent value (versus 49% EU-wide).
  • The primary value of Europe cited by Greeks - at 45% - was “Cultural diversity”, which recorded a response rate of 32% EU-wide.

“What is the extent of your own cross-cultural contact…?”

  • The commonplace response in Luxembourg (at 80%) and Sweden (73%) was “Watching foreign language TV and movies”. At the EU-wide level this answer was given by 19% of respondents.
  • “Having family/relatives living in another European country” was the most frequent response in Cyprus (59%) and Ireland (41%). At the EU-wide level this answer was given by 22% of respondents.
  • 50% of those questioned in Malta gave their response as “Having family/relatives living in a non-European country”, while only 15% of respondents cited this reason EU-wide.
  • “Traveling abroad” was the most frequent response in The Netherlands (65%), while this was given as an answer by 27% of those responding EU-wide.
  • “Reading foreign language newspapers” was cited by 71% of Luxembourgers, versus only 9% EU-wide.

Respondents were also asked to give their instinctive response to the following specific statements and scenarios:

i) When presented with the statement “Europe is clearly the world’s continent of culture”, 92% of Slovaks and 89% of Czechs agree with the statement - yet only 39% of Dutch respondents express the same view.

ii) When presented with the statement “Culture - in all its forms - is important to you personally”, the highest levels of agreement are to be found in Cyprus and Poland (91% and 92% respectively), while 53% of Austrians agree with the premise.

iii) When asked, 86% of Swedes and 76% of Latvians replied that they would like to study another language (or improve a foreign language they already speak). Meanwhile the corresponding positive response in Austria was 39%, and in Bulgaria it was 35%.

iv) “Lifestyle and manners” are thought by 43% of Cypriots as the primary element in defining someone’s culture, while on average 18% of citizens consider this as such at the wider EU level.

v) Education and family upbringing are thought by 39% of Italians as the primary element in defining someone’s culture, while on average 20% of citizens consider this as such at the wider EU level.

In their own way, these random observations tell us as much about the mindset of Europeans as do established academic cultural parameters. As already mentioned, the world has become familiar with unified policy announcements from the EU. The disparities so readily seen in the above responses of ordinary people around Europe, demonstrate that this is nothing short of remarkable. Given human nature, such a result would not have been achieved without a specific trans-national strategy.


Culture’s Official Journey

The EU made a key statement in 1974. Beyond the commercial aspects of the union, it advised that equal attention would also be paid to “non-material” values of member countries. Through this promotion of European heritage, the EU assumed a congruence between the culture, society and territory of the bloc, and therefore recognized the various cultures within it. The diversity of these cultures was hugely extended in 2004 with the adhesion of several former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact countries.

The promotion of intercultural dialogue thus became a procedural mechanism within the European Parliament and the European Commission. This first manifested itself to most European citizens, with the introduction of the “European Capital of Culture” program in 1985. The “Capital of Culture” is a city designated by the EU for a period of one calendar year, during which it organizes a series of cultural events with a strong pan-European dimension. With the enlargement of the EU, two or three cities now hold the title each year.

The other prominent method of promoting intercultural understanding was the introduction of EU subsidies for specific sites and monuments. Three official bodies were set up to ensure this: the European Fund for Regional Development, the European Social Fund and the European Historical Sites and Monuments Fund. The site that received the first significant EU subsidy was the Acropolis in Athens, which was described by the European Parliament as the cradle of European democracy (which is also why Athens was chosen as the first European Capital of Culture).

By the 1990s, ultra-homogenized commerce through uniform market regulations was routine within the EU member countries. This assimilation of trade left minority cultural groups - while being enthusiastic European citizens - feeling that their heritage was being threatened. This in turn would cause diversity to become an increasingly central issue in the ongoing self-definition of the EU.

With which an increasing number of EU policies were designed to specifically protect regional diversity. In 1995, EU member states signed an agreement called “the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”. This was the first legally binding multilateral instrument designed to recognize and protect local cultural expression (including shared traumatic experiences such as those inflicted by the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s). The European Parliament highlighted the significance of the agreement in preserving the social cohesion of the continent and for the ongoing resolution of cultural conflict within the European societies. This would prove to be providential, given the Eastern European enlargement of the EU in 2004.

The culmination of culture’s official journey within the EU came in 2007, with the Charter of Fundamental Rights becoming part of EU primary law in the Treaty of Lisbon. The management of diversity through intercultural dialogue was now irretrievably connected to the concept of European citizenship.


Europe Today

As anyone can observe, the EU’s harmonized trading environment and the cultural initiatives mentioned above have led to the longest period of stability in history. Europe has been at peace for seventy years. In recognition of its role in helping to transform Europe from “a continent of war to a continent of peace”, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The EU is now home to twenty-four official national languages and sixty regional languages.

While most EU citizens are not discussing the Charter of Fundamental Rights or the European Historical Sites and Monuments Fund over dinner, they influence everyday life across the continent. The “European Capital of Culture” project has become a hugely popular endeavor over the thirty-five years of its existence, for both the host cities and the thousands of visitors that it generates. While EU decision-making takes place at a distant administrative level, it serves to provide harmony among peoples who were brutally killing each other only two generations ago (which is no time at all in European terms). One only has to look at the volatility of regions just outside the borders of the EU to appreciate this.

In the most recent context of the COVID-19 crisis, any amount of harmony between neighboring countries can only be a good thing. Internal disagreements between member countries certainly exist, such as the current debate between the “Frugal Four” (Austria, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands) and the other member countries over the coronavirus recovery fund. Yet disagreements aired as equals in a trans-national place of assembly provide a much better opportunity to find solutions than war ever could.

As Europeans, the British have their own unique - both real and imagined - version of the events that unfolded during the Second World War. This in large part explains the political and social atmosphere that slowly but surely led to the Brexit referendum. The result being indeed described by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “a sad day for Europe”. In my next quarterly blog, I will look at the implications of Brexit in a European context as well its specific impact on the UK in this most unusual of years.

In the meantime, the words of Frans Timmermans - Vice-President of the European Commission - are entirely appropriate in concluding this article: “We live in a time of relentless and irreversible globalization. This creates a constant need to be more aware of cultural differences. A need to accept them and see them as an enrichment of each of our own lives. The EU is therefore probably better placed than anyone else to participate in - and benefit from - the era of globalization”.



Chris Richardson has lived in seven countries on three continents, performing both global and regional roles in the area of mobility and talent management. As Managing Editor of World Trade Resource, Chris has overall responsibility for the content integrity for 200 countries around the world for the World Trade Resource (WTR). He speaks French and German in addition to his native English. An avid traveler, Chris enjoys returning to the countries in which he has lived while every year also visiting a new country for the first time.