Thursday, June 11, 2009

Politics in Brussels

On Monday, I had a day at the European Commission in Brussels, at a gathering of the Platform for Intercultural Europe. I'd been interested in this initiative since it began (for obvious reasons), and when the invitation turned up, complete with Eurostar ticket, I felt I really needed to get myself and Border Crossings involved, even if it meant getting up at 4am!

In Britain, artists get very little say in the shaping of policy. There's the occasional consultation by the Arts Council, which doesn't seem to achieve very much. In the EU, however, this Platform has an official role as a consultant to the Commission. It's not only made up of artists (and is none the worse for that), but it includes many arts practitioners from across the continent (and indeed beyond), and really does have a role in policy-making. This was powerfully brought home to me when I walked in to the meeting room, and discovered a UN-like set-up, with microphones, headphones and simultaneous translators in sound-proofed booths. Given that this was the very morning when the European election results had been announced, and the rise of the radical right was made evident, including two seats for the BNP in the European Parliament, I was very struck by the level of responsibility attached to this work. If Europe can't encourage intercultural dialogue, then we know where we could be heading.

Of the keynote speakers, the one who really impressed me was Chris Torch, from a Swedish-based organisation called Intercult. He had a wonderful image for the role of the arts in contemporary society: in early societies, people used to gather in a circle for a cultural event, and the circle was broken by professionalisation and proscenium - our role is to repair it. The second keynote speaker, on the other hand, was talking very much in terms of the arts conveying a pre-conceived "message". I found myself banging the drum for the arts as themselves a dialogic process, as a forum which can work towards meaning in democratic society, and not simply as a form of propaganda. This intervention proved very popular, I'm happy to say!

I had lunch with two Slovenians, and Tarafa Baghajati (a Muslim man, originally from Syria and now living in Vienna). The Slovenians were laughing about the way people in the former Yugoslavia are now nostalgic for Tito. Tarafa tells us that the same is true of Syria, where Tito was the only world leader to be a friend. When Tarafa was seven, he and his class had to go to the airport to welcome Tito to Damascus. They stood for five hours in the heat, until he finally arrived. Then, they all released doves of peace into the air.

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