Exclusive essay for the Sunday Herald by Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport

More than sixty years after the EU's founding fathers started an endeavour to maintain peace in Europe on the basis of common values and economic interest, we often forget the key role culture played over the course of history in bringing Europeans together.  

As European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport I see this every day, and I see the connections in our cultural roots that go back for centuries.

As a child growing up in Hungary, which was at that time still quite disconnected from what was happening in the rest of Europe, I was already, unknowingly, a part of this deeper tapestry of connection.


This has often been brought home to me in the smallest of details - the bagpipes, for example, that typically Scottish instrument, are played right across Europe and in my native Hungary we have an expression that translates as “blowing our sorrow into a sheepskin”.

From Edinburgh to Thessaloniki, from Tallinn to Lisbon, Europe’s cultural heritage marks our identity, brings people together and is of great economic importance.


So some time ago I proposed that we should celebrate our connections with a European Year of Cultural Heritage, and I am delighted to be able to report that that my proposal has become a reality, receiving wide support from Members of the European Parliament and EU Member States. The Year was officially launched in Milan in December, tomorrow it launches here in Scotland. It will highlight Europe's cultural heritage, showcasing its role in fostering a shared sense of identity and building our future.

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The European Commission recently asked Europeans for their views on cultural heritage. This Eurobarometer survey shows that for a large majority of Europeans cultural heritage is important. A substantial majority take pride in a historical monument or site, work of art or tradition from a European country.

Of course, whilst discussing the ways in which cultural heritage brings people together, it would be naive to ignore the tensions and difficulties existing between and within the countries that make up the EU. And speaking of tensions let me address Brexit.

Yes, as it stands, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, and this is a loss to all those involved. However, our interwoven and ingrained cultural ties will continue to exist after the United Kingdom has ceased to be a member of the European Union. And there is no reason why we should not be able to further build on our cultural connection and shared roots in the future.
In a similar line of thought, I am convinced that discovering and experiencing our shared cultural heritage can strengthen our sense of togetherness.

Glasgow is an example of a city that has long-standing experience and success in this kind of cultural outreach.  Glasgow was one of the first European Capitals of Culture and research shows that in 1990, 61 per cent of all adult Glaswegians visited a museum or gallery that year, 19 per cent attended a dance event for the first time, and 10 per cent attended neighbourhood cultural events.
Since then, 50 more cities around Europe have learned from Glasgow’s experience, taking on the designation of European Capital of Culture. Through similar kinds of outreach during the European Year we hope to encourage more people to participate.
There will be thousands of initiatives and events across Europe. In Scotland for example, the Festival of Museums, a Scotland-wide weekend of guided tours, workshops and debates, will take place on May 18-20.

The Historic Environment Scotland site, Stanley Mills in Perth, which has been designated part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage, will be free to visit during National Mills Weekend, May 12 -13.
Throughout the year, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) will be running a programme of events and in September the annual Doors Open Day will once more be connected to the Europe-wide festivities.

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From Achiltibuie to Abbotsford, Gairloch to Govan, Sumburgh to Stornoway, and of course Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, communities will participate. And in Veszprém, the town in Hungary which I am proud to call my home, the Year will convey a universal message about our common values.

To make sure our efforts leave an imprint beyond 2018, the European Commission, in collaboration with the Council of Europe, UNESCO, and other partners, will run longer-term projects.


Whilst cultural heritage has a very real impact on our societies as a force for social cohesion, it is also an engine for economic growth and job creation. Across Europe, 7.8 million jobs are linked to cultural heritage.
This is why during the European Year of Cultural Heritage, we will pay special attention to the relationship between cultural heritage and tourism. One notable action we support is the annual Sustainable Cultural Tourism Award, which promotes the connections between tourism and cultural heritage - applicants can submit their entries July 1.

European identity can and must co-exist with our local, regional and national identities. Scotland is a perfect place to celebrate the women and men in cultural fields who have had a resounding impact on European culture.

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Take Scottish literature for example. Robert Burns’ poetry inspired many European composers, including Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.  And there is Robert Louis Stevenson, with his famous adventure story of Treasure Island and his pioneering novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which inspired the European Gothic.

And more recently the novels of crime writer Val McDermid, whose characters regularly foray to continental Europe, have been translated into 30 languages.  JK Rowling gave us the inspiring Harry Potter books, which have resonated so deeply with Europeans of all ages – and it was with some pleasure I read that the most ferocious dragon, the Hungarian Horntail, was from my native country of Hungary.

Europe is a heavily urbanised continent but we cannot forgo our connection to the land that has been so fundamental in shaping our continent.  Scotland’s famous landscape was the iconic backdrop for the Hogwarts Express steaming over the Glenfinnan Viaduct.  The many castles dotted throughout Scotland are central parts of the cultural landscape.
These magnificent buildings are witnesses to past glories and defeats and homes to queen and kings.

The experience of castles is something we as Europeans all share. From Ireland to Poland, Sweden to Sicily, these buildings tell a shared story and history. Like castles, churches across Scotland, from the parish church in the Shetland Islands to the mighty St Mungo's Cathedral in Glasgow are standing testaments to our heritage.
Given this importance of historical buildings, the European Commission has decided to launch an initiative in line with the European Year of Cultural Heritage to integrate cultural heritage into environmental, architectural and planning policies.

The European Commission is also using cutting edge technology to protect and preserve monuments under threat. Many cultural heritage sites in the Mediterranean area are vulnerable to earthquakes. So we are investing in research, for example to develop smart materials that can improve the seismic resistance of historic buildings, helping Member States to preserve and protect valuable and important buildings and sites.

But this support goes beyond technology. Last summer, young Europeans who are members of the European Solidarity Corps arrived in Norcia, Italy, to support the local community in rebuilding their lives after devastating earthquakes.
These young volunteers from a number of European countries are helping to reconstruct historic buildings that were heavily damaged by the earthquake, including the Basilica of San Benedetto and the Monastery of the Benedictines. And they are running social activities, for instance for children and elderly people. In total, until 2020, 230 European Solidarity Corps members will support Italian communities hit by several earthquakes in 2016 and 2017, and EUR 790,000 has been granted for these projects.

Another aspect we are highlighting is the role of traditional skills. In the case of the Outer Hebrides, for example, preserving weaving skills and hopefully helping to stem the emigration of young people. I am pleased that the European Union funds projects to support handicrafts in projects such as Craft, Art And People Together, in which participants from Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom use handicrafts as a driver of social and economic development.
When we speak about cultural heritage, we tend to focus on the past. But our heritage keeps evolving. Modern music is making its mark on our ever developing European story. Scottish musicians have had a significant impact and influence on European music. This ranges from the likes of Glasgow band Franz Ferdinand who recorded their debut album in Sweden to Calvin Harris, whose mastery of modern music has elevated him to one of the most famous DJs in the world. And all of these musicians toured Europe bringing themselves into contact with people across the continent.
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And the European Commission, through its Creative Europe programme, is supporting the development of artists across Europe and their work. The programme has financed collaboration between a Scottish dance group (StopGAP Dance Company), a Belgian and a French organisation. This project was called Integrance, and it experimented with creation and performance of inclusive dance with international artists, thus consolidating inclusive dance and I am pleased to see the Creative Europe programme supporting such worthy causes.

Scots have also had a significant impact on film and television. Trainspotting, voted the best Scottish film of all time in 2004 by the Scottish public, tells the story of Edinburgh's dark underbelly in the 1990s and which has inspired generations of young European film makers.

Through the emergence of digitalisation we can help us to preserve and develop our cultural heritage.  Europeana, an EU-funded organisation, has supported projects such as one focusing on the historic migration flows to and from Europe. Europeana's online exhibition currently features almost 7,000 videos, 1,500 sound recordings and over 86,000 images on this topic; these have all been sourced from cultural heritage institutions and the public (find out more at www.europeana.eu).

Another example is the Creative Europe-funded project ALApp, with the involvement of Historic Environment Scotland. The project uses the latest technology to map and then produce 3D and 4D reconstructions of former Roman fortifications, sites and artefacts in Scotland, Austria and Germany for visitors to download in an app.

And what could be a better place to celebrate the shared cultural heritage between Scotland and Europe than the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? In 1947 the Festival Fringe was born when eight groups appeared uninvited and staged their own shows alongside the International Festival. What was so special about the International Festival was who launched it and the purpose behind it. Rudolf Bing, an Austrian impresario, who fled Nazi Germany, wanted Edinburgh to be recognised as the 'cultural resort of Europe'. Whilst these festivals have changed a lot since 1947, one thing has remained the same - Europeans have flocked to the city to perform, create, share and embrace each other's culture.

Edinburgh has a prominent place in the recently launched Commission's Cultural and Creative Cities Monitor - as does Glasgow - where the satisfaction of locals with the cultural facilities is particularly high. By providing comparable data, the Monitor helps policy makers as well as the cultural and creative sectors identify local strengths and areas for improvement, and learn from other, similar cities.

Edinburgh stands out when compared to many of its peers of similar size in integrating non-British citizens. I believe this openness and tolerance of newcomers has something to do with the vibrancy and success of Scotland's cultural heritage.
But finally, a brief word about the future. Cultural heritage is an irreplaceable repository of knowledge, and it is the glue that binds us together as Europeans in one union, in all our diversity. We want to use the momentum of the European Year of Cultural Heritage to develop a revised European Agenda for Culture, which I intend to present later this spring. At its core, this new agenda will recognise that culture is essential to make our economies more competitive, our societies more cohesive – and us more aware of our identity as Europeans.

We believe that culture can build bridges between people. The new agenda will seek to support key organisations in the cultural sector to drive economic growth and allow Europeans to explore and experience our rich and varied cultural heritage for years to come, building an ever stronger sense among Europeans that we, indeed, are united in diversity.