"It's so obvious that you can do a better job if you work together"
What are the milestones for EUNIC in 2020? EUNIC Global director Gitte Zschoch sheds light on the future work plan, demystifies a common misconception about EUNIC, and reflects on what she has learned since arriving in Brussels.
What are the milestones for EUNIC in 2020?
2020 will bring a lot of challenges and milestones, but if I were to pick two, I would say it’s European ‘Houses’ of Culture, which will soon be called European Spaces of Culture and which will continue for a second phase. In 2020 we will see five projects being realised and we will have the final conference in December. The idea here is to find new ways of innovative collaboration between European and local stakeholders in an equal partnership on the ground. At the end of the year there will be a conference in Brussels which will bring forward policy recommendations on the topic to the EU. Our task is to find or define what European collaboration in cultural relations can look like.
The second milestone would be the toolkit on “Fair Collaboration in international cultural relations”. This is something that I have brought into the network in the Siena Cultural Relations Forum in 2019 as well as to the last General Assembly of EUNIC. When we interact with our partners on the ground in culture and in the arts – I have worked, for instance, in African countries – it is very difficult to achieve true equal partnership. One partner might come with all the money, a large network and infrastructures and also different sets of skills. This toolkit will provide answers as well as processes and instruments to overcome these challenges and to arrive at fair collaboration practices. The toolkit will also raise the awareness of blind spots we might have in our work due to our pasts of colonialism and imperialism and now also with the new situation of climate change.
Sustainability in culture is a hot topic, especially when you talk about fair collaboration. How is EUNIC dealing with this topic?
One of the projects I am looking forward to is one from the European ‘Houses’ of Culture projects, in Mongolia. The project is called “Green Hero”, while Ulaanbaatar, the capital, is called “Red Hero” – a nice word play. EUNIC colleagues will be looking into environmental issues and how the arts can contribute to raising awareness and to improving the conditions of people living in a part of the city that is strongly affected by climate change.
In this important momentum: what are the challenges for the EUNIC network?
I see two major axes. One is the habitat that EUNIC is interacting in and one is the network itself. For one, we have a new European Commission, a new High Representative and a new European Parliament, so we need to forge new partnerships with those new colleagues. We need to make sure, together with other organisations, that culture remains a topic of importance and that especially international cultural relations are not forgotten.
When it comes to our network, we need to continue the work we started: professionalising our collaboration and making it a real habit to work together. We need to get better at how we do things, so that it becomes clear that if we know each other and pool our strengths together, we can have a larger impact.
Also, I think one item we could look at is what it means to be truly European in our work. We know that in some clusters far from all members are present, sometimes just Spain, France and Germany. But how can the activities of those clusters also reflect a true Europeanness and have a Lithuanian or a Greek aspect as well.
A large part of your work is to motivate colleagues to engage with EUNIC. What is a common misconception you encounter?
One item that colleagues sometimes raise is the diversity of EUNIC, especially the fact that EUNIC includes ministries while it is called EU National Institutes for Culture. Well, I think it is true that EUNIC is quite diverse, but not only in that it includes ministries, but also other members that work differently from cultural institutes as such – agencies don’t have a network, for example. But this has to do with the diversity of the EU in itself, and some Member States cannot afford and don’t have the privilege to have a full-fledged cultural institute with a worldwide network. We need to take that into account. I think this diversity is our strength: the fact that we are representing all EU Member States is our asset and this is why we can have a strategic partnership with the EU.
In all this diversity and all these different ways of understanding cultural relations or cultural diplomacy, what unites EUNIC is the way it understands cultural relations. We have been quite influenced by the papers that the EU has produced – mostly the strategic approach and the Council Conclusions on international cultural relations. These papers are quite progressive in how they understand cultural relations: they focus on partnerships, on truly working together with local partners, and use a very broad definition of culture. These principles agree with the strategies and ways of working of even the most progressive or at arm’s length members of EUNIC. This is what unites us and what will define our work more and more in the future.
As a side note, when EUNIC was founded in 2006, out of the six founding members one was not a cultural institute: the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, already in its inception, EUNIC was quite diverse.
You have been serving for one and a half years now as EUNIC Global Director. What have you learned so far?
Working in EUNIC and especially working in Brussels and the realm of the EU is extremely meaningful. What I realised when I came here is how much fun it actually is to work in a truly international team and environment and to have a multilateral, European approach. I do think there lies a lot of strength in it. After you have been in Brussels for a couple of months or years, you sometimes wonder why Member States think they can do a better job alone. Whereas to us here in Brussels it’s so obvious that you can do a better job when you work together.
Last but not least: the UK has just left the European Union. What are the impacts of Brexit on the network?
Of course, Brexit has been on our mind for the past years and we discussed it several times at the General Assembly and what it would mean for the British Council’s membership in EUNIC. What became clear was that the relationship should be close, and yet EUNIC should adhere to its Statutes. We will use the transition period until the end of the year to figure out what this future relationship can look like.
What is your wish for EU international cultural relations?
My wish for international cultural relations would be that it would be more at the forefront of foreign policy. Not only because culture contributes to socio-economic development, to the wellbeing of a society and to peace building and reconciliation, but also because it has an intrinsic value in itself and is a basic human right, according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We as cultural professionals need to claim this importance more boldly and all work together to bring cultural relations and the societal value of culture to the forefront and to the attention of political leaders.