Speech by Rui Vieira Nery

Speech by Rui Vieira Nery
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Europe is living through one of the most serious crisis of its modern History. With sovereign debts and state deficits soaring, unparalleled market unrest, interest rates reaching unpredictable heights, radical government spending cuts threatening the very survival of the Welfare State, unemployment rising to unprecedented levels and the economy in general going into a stage of minimal growth, if not, in many cases, of outright recession, European societies face today what is certainly their most severe challenge since World War II.

National governments and European institutions alike were slow to realize the nature and the scope of this crisis and to this day have not yet been able to devise a coherent and effective joint response to it. At first this was supposed to be a local phenomenon, affecting only a few peripheral countries that allegedly had behaved irresponsibly and lived for too long above their means. A tough therapy of strict budgetary discipline tightly supervised by the EU financial institutions and the IMF, combined with a moderate loan granted under conveniently Draconian terms, should quickly achieve the desired goal of both punishing the infractors and reestablishing financial sanity in Europe. It was, after all, a Greek problem, not an European problem, and if the Greeks could not solve it and should not survive either the disease or the cure, cutting Greece altogether off from the Euro Zone (if not from the EU itself) would isolate the virus and prevent contagion to the other countries.

It was not to be so, as facts came to demonstrate. The magic therapy failed, and Greek economy not only did not recover but is literally crumbling as the country is soon expected to go either into default or even into sheer bankruptcy. Portugal and Ireland were next to be forced by unbridled market speculation into the same path, and although the Portuguese and the Irish cases do not seem to be at this point as bleak as the Greek still no real solution is in sight in either country, and experts of all ideological creeds increasingly recognize that the short-term budget cuts imposed by the loan agreements with these countries are both unrealistic and counterproductive in regard to the economic development goals they were expected to serve. Dark clouds are now thickening over Spain and Italy, and the potential need for a massive bailout of both countries cannot be excluded; the United Kingdom, Belgium and France may follow; and even the almighty Germany is finally realizing that the domino effect of what initially seemed to be mere local, isolated problems at the periphery of the EU may put the German banks in danger, and through them the whole German economy, which is simultaneously affected by the gradual loss of vital European markets for its products.

It should now be quite obvious, once and for all, this is not the exclusive issue of a few countries too prone to melancholic singing rather than hard work under the foggy mists of Ireland or on the sunny beaches of Greece and Portugal. This is a Pan-European crisis, and demands a Pan-European response, if not based on the high ideals of transnational solidarity that guided the Founding Fathers of the EU at least grounded on the very pragmatic realization of self-interest—the European project will rise of sink as a whole, and no single European country, no matter how wealthy or powerful, will remain immune to the potential failure of that project. Today we must all be Greeks—or Irish, or Portuguese, or indeed German—if we want to be Europeans.

In this context the famous quotation by the German Protestant pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller in regard to the ascension of Nazism easily comes to mind:

First they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade-unionists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade-unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me and there was anyone left to speak out for me.
Poetry often has this special power to encapsulate the essence of the major issues that society faces, with an added poignancy that the mere political and economic analysis cannot reach.

But if the need for a collective response to the crisis on the part of  all European States is being increasingly acknowledged by both Left and Right, at a continental scale, It would be, however, tragically short-sighted to try to build that collective response on the basis of a purely financial approach. In fact, at the very core of this crisis is the artificial gap that was dug in the last two or three decades between the world of finance and the universe of real economy. Financial measures, such as a partial restructuring of the debt, an increased effort of fiscal responsibility and budgetary discipline on the part of national governments, the issuing of Eurobonds to ensure lower interest rates or the recapitalization of banks, are certainly needed—and urgently so—as a first step to  come out of the current crisis. After all, as a British trader has recently put it, “governments don’t rule the world, Goldmann-Sachs does”. Financial measures cannot be seen, however, as an end in themselves but as a means to devise and promote a strategy of sustainable economic development.

If Europe is to overcome the sovereign debt crisis, the European economy needs to grow and it must do so in a context of fierce globalization in which it faces the competition of various new emerging powers in Asia and Latin America that have gradually taken over large sectors of the markets traditionally dominated by the Old World. With significantly lower production costs and a growing technological capacity, countries like China, Indonesia or Brazil are now offering at unbeatable prices many of the same products that were traditionally sold by European producers, and in an era of globalized free trade no artificial protectionist barriers can curb—and even less stop—this trend. The European economy can therefore only compete successfully in this global market if it does what it can do better, and for that it must rely on its most significant competitive advantage—European Culture.

Words can be treacherous, and I should immediately clarify that in saying this I am not implying any sort of ingrained cultural supremacy of Western civilization in regard to others or trying to whitewash the historical burden of a considerable legacy of violence, greed and intolerance that Europe has accumulated throughout the centuries in its relationship with the rest of the world. But by the same token it must be recognized that Europe and the West were responsible for a remarkable contribution to the definition and dissemination, at a global scale, of the basic values of modern democracy, as stated in such seminal and universally adopted texts as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Charter of the United Nations. And that European societies are by and large the ones in which individual rights, guarantees and liberties are more widely recognized and protected.

Thus said, Europe is certainly characterized by the wealth and internal variety of its cultural heritage and of its contemporary artistic life, as well as by the intense rate of intercultural dialogue that has always defined it. To the many different traditions that developed locally in each of its regions, its enhanced exposure to other cultures and civilizations, albeit not always for the most noble reasons, has added, century after century, the contributions of the very best of the non-Western cultural patterns with which it came into contact. In recent decades, internal mobility stimulated by the free circulation established by the EU, as well as the growth of immigration originating from non-European countries has greatly intensified this rate of intercultural dialogue. More than ever, and despite occasional local outbreaks of xenophobia, racism or religious intolerance, our continent has become a platform on which multiple cultures, ethnic groups, religions, languages and worldviews have learned to acknowledge each other, develop side by side, interact and mingle freely into a democratic, tolerant society.  This is a treasure that we must cherish and protect above all things because it grants European culture an universal quality that can also affect the universal appeal of its economic offer.

We must recognize, of course, that economic hardship has led in recent years in some regions of Europe to a new breed of nationalistic populism that has reached in some cases very extreme manifestations that must be for all of us a matter of the greatest concern, not only such clearly demented episodes as the recent Norway massacre but also a few legislative manifestations of religious intolerance in various European countries that may seriously endanger what has been otherwise a considerably harmonious experience of multicultural coexistence and mutual learning.

A legacy of adherence to democratic values and a considerable openness, past and present,  to multiculturality are nevertheless but two of the competitive advantages of European culture, and therefore also of European economy. Another one is a tradition of quality, originality and innovation unmatched elsewhere and particularly valuable in a context of globalized mass production in which low-cost goods and services are generally characterized by low-quality raw materials, faulty manufacturing, repetitive routine patterns and outdated underlying concepts. Europe, with its high costs of labor and expensive social security and welfare state systems, will most likely never be able to compete at that level, even with the support of advanced technological know-how which is nowadays, in any case, also available to many of its extra-European competitors. But it can keep an unparalleled privileged position in a high-end market of high-quality goods which incorporate state-of the-art technology with refinement of design, innovative concepts and general excellence of conception and production.

In this perspective, the economic role of Culture and of the Arts in any coherent strategy for sustainable economic development in Europe is immense. Just as fundamental scientific research in apparently unproductive sectors of knowledge is essential for the development of applied technology with direct economic relevance, so does artistic creation encourage, by definition, the curiosity towards difference, the search for individuality and originality, the taste for experimentation and innovation, and the disruption of established patterns and routines that must be at the centre of the guiding spirit of a competitive European economy. Arts and Culture must be seen, therefore, as a laboratory for fundamental research and development without which our economy cannot generate the wide gamut of specialized high-quality products, constantly renovated and uniquely attractive, that grant it its very own competitive edge in a globalized economy.

As such, we should consider with great concern the recent trend towards radical spending cuts in the cultural sector that have characterized government policies all over Europe in the aftermath of the current crisis. The preservation and study of our cultural heritage and the support of contemporary artistic creation are by no means a luxury we can afford to suspend while attending to more pressing economic priorities. They must be a pre-condition of any realistic strategy for economic recovery in Europe. When one of the main buildings in the archeological site of Pompeii crumbles for lack of proper basic maintenance this is not the inevitable price of hard times in the economy, or a manifestation of prudent, if regrettable, austerity and budgetary discipline. It is really a blunt anti-economic gesture, not only in terms of its direct impact on the attractiveness of the European tourist industry, but especially as a sign of sheer disrespect for the European cultural identity and for its role as a pillar of European economic growth.

Some claim that the market of the so-called cultural industries will by itself replace the State in its specific role of sponsor of the arts and assure the maintenance of European cultural life at its present level, weeding out supposedly “useless” cultural investments of limited social or economic appeal. It is of course an illusion. The cultural industries have a role of their own—and a fundamental one, for that matter—in cultural life but their very efficiency depends on a permanent interaction with an experimental, non-profit sector of artistic creativity which provides them with new blood, new ideas, new aesthetics, new techniques, without which those industries would stagnate and lose their capacity to innovate. The current levels of State investment in Culture—which are, in any case, considerably irrelevant in macro-budgetary terms, contrary to a much publicized view often spread by the media and by populist politicians—thus represent, not a luxury spending that can be radically reduced without any major consequences for the everyday life of European societies, but a sound, reasonable investment that must remain an economic, as well as civilizational and political priority.

But at the kernel of cultural and artistic creativity lies of course cultural and artistic education, both in terms of the specialized vocational training of new artists and cultural operators and of the promotion of the general awareness of the ordinary citizens in regard to the arts. The presence of the arts in the general school curricula and the educational programs of most cultural and artistic institutions have been greatly reinforced throughout Europe in the past two or three decades. And the number of young people who choose to pursue an academic training and a professional career in the arts  has also grown immensely in the same period, leading to an exponential development of the cultural sector in the economy in terms of job creation and profit making. Practically all segments of European economy have been touched directly or indirectly by this growth, and the significance of Culture in economic terms has been explicitly and convincingly recognized and stressed by multiple studies at the national and EU levels.

Nevertheless, in recent years, the impact of the negative results of the PISA evaluation tests, which have demonstrated serious literacy deficiencies in the European school system by comparison with their Asian and North-American counterparts, for instance, and a trend for growing unemployment amongst college graduates have combined with the current wave of government spending restrictions in Education to lead to severe cuts in cultural education in the school curricula all over Europe. Ministries of Education and school administrations in many countries are now promoting a “back to basics” strategy of reinforcing the role of certain nuclear disciplines like Mathematics and Native Language, and concentrating on the teaching of professional skills that would be supposedly more marketable, while eliminating most disciplines and pedagogic programs related to cultural and artistic education, a field now regarded as superfluous.

The best argument I have heard against these policies came from the representative of a major German corporate foundation in an International Congress on Cultural Education that took place a few years ago in Hamburg under the auspicious title “Kinder zur Olymp”: “We do not need for schools to teach their students technological skills, because technology evolves very rapidly and it’s up to the employers to update constantly the technological training of their work force. We need you to teach them how to think critically as individuals, how to be able to identify new problems and devise new solutions. And that is something that can only be done if you expose them thoroughly to the arts and to the creative processes on which they are based.” This was not the approach of a pundit of educational philosophy speaking on behalf of the vested interests of his tribe, it was the pragmatic view of a major producer of high-end automobiles seeking to maintain his competitive advantage in the international markets on the basis of exclusive, innovative and original technology and design.

This is therefore the essential lesson I believe we must learn from the current crisis. That any solution for the financial woes affecting Europe must come from a global, Pan-European strategy for economic growth that will take advantage of the unique capital of European culture in an era of global competition, as the title of our panel wisely stresses: of its general wealth and variety, its democratic foundations, its multicultural diversity, its capacity to promote originality and innovation, its ability to embody unparalleled standards of excellence. And that such a strategy—a fundamental requirement of the very survival of the European project as we have dreamed of it in the past half century—will not be possible to devise and promote efficiently without a sustained policy of public support of the Arts and of Cultural Education. Our challenge, the challenge of European economy as of the European project as a whole, is the challenge of creativity.

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