My speech at the European Culture Forum 2016 in Brussels

Check against delivery

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all I would like to thank you for having invited me to this great event, and for giving me the opportunity to reflect on something bigger, and deeper, than the everyday crisis agenda of the current Foreign policy.

Almost 25 years ago we were told we were entering the era of a clash of civilisations. We were told that wars would be fought because of religion and culture. You probably know where I stand on this: I believe there is no clash of civilisations. Wars are still being fought for the same, old reasons. Economic interests, natural resources, spheres of influence, power. And yet, there are indeed cultural clashes to fight. These clashes do not occur between civilisations, but inside each of our civilisations.

Culture can be a battlefield. It has been a battlefield in Europe for centuries. Today, some global and regional players believe that culture can be “weaponised”. But culture can also be the place where people meet and make the most out of their diversity. This is the choice we have made when our Union was founded.

We realized that our culture is Greek and Jewish, Roman and Anglo-Saxon, Christian and Arab, Latin and Slavic, French and German, Mediterranean and Scandinavian, religious and secular.

It was not isolation, but openness what made Europe such an incredible place and project. A project of integration that the world considers – still – as a model.

Exchanges made us richer, not weaker. Culture in Europe is always plural – because so many different cultures belong in this continent. European culture is diversity. European culture is distinction, and it is at the same time common ground.

This is not always easy to understand, especially in these times. The so-called “multiculturalism” has not always worked. In some cases it has led to segregation. In other cases, it has led to confusion – people don’t know who they are and where they belong. Uncertainty has created fear, fear is creating hatred. Strong identities are the basis for openness. Which also means that, too often, those who are afraid of multiculturalism do not have a strong identity but rather a very weak one.

Yes, in today’s world it is crucial to make sense of our identities and our differences. Fear originates when we don’t recognise each other, because we perceive diversity as a threat, or when we don’t know or understand each other. Our differences can lay the ground for dialogue. Our diversity can be, should be our strength as we face common threats.

And this leads me to the main topic of this conversation today. When Europe engages with the world, culture has to be at the core of our foreign policy. Culture can help us fight and prevent radicalisation. But it can also foster economic growth. It can strengthen diplomatic relations and mutual understanding. It can help us stand together to common threats and build partnerhips and alliances among institutions and – what counts even more- among people.

This is why Tibor [Navracsics] and I will present to the Council and Parliament next month a strategy for culture in the EU external relations. A strategy, because it is not the time for improvising. This is one of the great issues in our foreign policy, and it deserves to be treated as such.



It is probably clear by now that when I say culture I don’t just mean literature and science. Culture can be made by the street artist making the face of a building anew. Or by the artisan whose technique has been refined through the centuries. Culture does not necessarily need a master’s degree.

Dialogue among cultures is not simply about teaching our culture to the whole world. We need to learn before we teach, to listen before we talk.

And dialogue among cultures is not just a matter for governments. Weeks ago a great artist of our age passed away. Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad, educated in Beirut, and became a world-class architect in London. Such mix of influences has made her art great.

Exchanges among cultures make us richer. This idea has shaped our new Neighbourhood  Policy in depth. So we decided to give cultural and audio-visual operators from our region the opportunity to take part in the Creative Europe programme. We have strengthened the Eastern Partnership Culture Programme II, as well as cooperation with the Anna Lindh Foundation, which plays an important role in promoting intercultural dialogue in the Mediterranean. 

But this approach goes beyond our region. Ten days ago I was in Indonesia meeting civil society and religious leaders. Indonesia is a nation of 250 million, a Muslim majority country hosting the most amazing variety of cultures and stories and languages. It’s at the other side of the world, but there is so much we can learn from each other, if we meet with each other and work together.

Our foreign policy has to focus constantly on this kind of exchanges, particularly for the young generations. That’s when we all learn how to cope with our world: understanding diversity and complexity is vital.

More than half the young people who studied abroad with Erasmus Mundus say the program has helped them understand diversity and dialogue among cultures. I can confirm this from my own Erasmus experience.

Together with Tibor Navracsics and Carlos Moedas we are planning to further invest on the Marie Curie-Sklodowska Actions: the EU will finance 11,000 researchers a year to work outside Europe; and 15,000 researchers from outside Europe to join us by 2020.

The EU will finance over 25,000 scholarships per year and some 170 joint projects between EU and non-EU universities – this is to promote student and staff exchanges. This sector can only be expanded – we have a strong economic interest to do so. When young Africans come to Europe to study, they are getting skills and expertise that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Back home they might set up a business, or work in a hospital, or get into politics and institutions. From our side, it is an investment in the future of Africa – that is, an investment in our own future and present.

Young girls and boys who study in Europe bring back to their countries not just knowledge, but personal ties and a better understanding of who we are. It is our interest to keep in touch with them, and to create networks among them – and this is also part of our strategy. They can be our informal ambassadors in the world.

For the same reason, I will launch in the coming months a new initiative to bring together young people and youth organisations from Europe and the Mediterranean. Mutual understanding is so much easier when you can relate to a real face, a real friendship.

This is also the great thing of culture: it makes it impossible to consider people as numbers; it links every single person to a story, and every single story is worth to be told, and listened to. We are not numbers, but persons.



But let us also be clear on something. This is not just about identities and mutual understanding. Culture matters to our economies and to our growth. The economic benefits of cultural exchanges are too often ignored, although the statistics are clear. Global trade in creative products has more than doubled over the last decade, despite the global recession. Cultural and creative industries represent around three per cent of the world GDP and 30 million jobs.

In the EU alone these industries account for more than 7 million jobs. Culture makes a greater contribution to our economy than traditional flagship sectors such as the automotive industry in Germany, or the chemical industry in France.

But this is also true in our region and for developing countries. Over the past few months I visited the Sahel twice, and our friends there have told me this story a number of times.

War, terrorism and desertification have dealt a huge blow to tourism in those lands. Places like Timbuktu or Agadez have seen their economy decay. And with higher unemployment, a number of people turned to the criminal economy, strengthening all kinds of illegal trafficking, terrorist organisations, and the smuggling of human beings.

Cultural diplomacy is also about jobs, social cohesion, and security. A relatively limited investment from Europe can make a huge difference. And it can support our own interest: the resilience of our neighbourhood and of Africa is crucial for our own security and prosperity.



We had two good news yesterday: first, the fact that 2018 will be the Cultural Heritage year; second, the presentation of the first “Blue Helmet” task force that Italy has put at the disposal of UNESCO. I hope other countries will follow and we are ready to facilitate this work. The protection of cultural heritage holds a special place in this work. The EU is already at the front line. We work with UNESCO all over the world, with a contribution of one hundred million euros. This money is going to the restoration of the Timbuktu manuscripts in Mali, and into Project Mosul, in Iraq – where we are preserving the memory of destroyed cultural heritage thanks to virtual models.

The images of destroyed temples and headless statues in Palmyra where painful to watch. This has to do with the terrorists’ ideology, but it’s not just that. I shall repeat it once again: let us not fall into the “clash of civilisations” trap.
The same terrorists are very often engaged in smuggling antiquities to finance their wars. Again, this is about money and power.

So we are working with UNESCO to set up a rapid reaction mechanism for the protection of cultural heritage. But we will also propose to the Council and the European Parliament new legislation to regulate the import into the EU of cultural goods – and close this channel for terrorist financing.

We also need to plan for the reconstruction of many destroyed wonders. We will share satellite imagery to take stock of damage and plan reconstruction. We will provide finance and expertise to assess damage and think for the day after. 

In many civil wars a church, or a bridge can have a huge symbolic power. Their protection and reconstruction is at times linked to reconciliation, the rebuilding of trust and the respect for different identities.

When discussing with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo I witnessed that cultural heritage is above all about respecting history and protecting cultural and religious identity. This is what the dialogue I facilitate between Belgrade and Pristina is all about: to help them reach a shared understanding and build a common future together, respecting each other.


The task ahead is huge. Cultural diplomacy is about conservation, but it is also about innovation and new ideas. It is about education, security, human development. If we truly want to put culture at the core of our foreign policy – then we need the whole of Europe to get on-board, with all our expertise, our history and our full potential.

All Member States have their own strong cultural heritage. We all have deep and vibrant cultural relations with third countries. This diversity is our strength. 

But we need all European actors to share the same sense of direction – governments, regions and cities, but also cultural institutes, civil society organisations, artists, scientists and performers. Last month we launched a Cultural Diplomacy Platform to gather all these actors and engage them on a continuous basis, receive feedback, policy advice and support.

Local authorities are particularly important: the World Cities Culture Report 2015 shows the excellent return – in terms of growth and poverty reduction – for cities that invest in culture. So cities can be a crucial player in our cultural diplomacy. But this is also true for national governments and parliaments, for foundations and for any citizens. Culture belongs to all of us, and all can contribute. 


Probably no other place in the world has the same cultural “density” as Europe. So much history, so many stories and cultures. We preserve millennial traditions, and we are among the engines of global innovation.

We should not be afraid to say we are a cultural super-power. And it is our openness that made us great, our freedom that made culture a European excellence. We did not invent the Arabic numerals, and we became the home to the greatest mathematicians in history. Some believe we didn’t even inventspaghetti, although no Italian would buy this story…(and by the way food is also an important part of our culture…).

Our culture inspired the world because it was itself inspired by the world. The way to the future is this. Proud of our heritage, open to the world. There is not other way to navigate a globalised world. If you don’t know where you come from, you get lost very easily. We know where we come from. We know who we are, and what we believe in. A dialogue with different cultures cannot, and must not, scare us.

In the era of social media and shrinking distances, our cultures are bound to meet. We have a duty to make the most out of this encounter.

Put culture at the very heart of Europe’s external action. Refuse any clash of civilisations, and work for an alliance of civilisations. Cultural diplomacy is not just a hobby for intellectuals. It is a cornerstone in our relationship with today’s world. It is vital for Europe, to promote our interests and advance our values.

Thank you.