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Expert comment: Culture, migration, and the European Union

Dr Kate Mattocks, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Politics & International Relations, looks at the role of arts and culture alongside EU migration. 

The European Union recently published a report on the role of culture and the arts in promoting intercultural dialogue in the context of the refugee crisis. It is dedicated to the late Jo Cox MP (among others). On the back of the recent one-year anniversary of the Brexit referendum, in which immigration was a large factor (Clarke, Goodwin, and Whiteley, 2017) and recent turbulent times in UK and European politics, it is worthwhile to reflect on this report and think critically about the role of the arts and culture in bringing people together, and the EU’s role in doing so.

The report is the outcome of an Open Method of Coordination (OMC) working group on the topic. The group contained experts from 26 Member States (only the UK and Poland did not participate). The OMC is a voluntary process designed so that Member States can learn from each other and improve policies in their own countries. Culture is a supplementary competence in the EU, meaning that the EU’s actions supplement but do not override the cultural policies of the Member States. This means that the recommendations contained in the report are just that – they are not mandatory, and for individual Member States to consider.

The report does not shy away from difficult political truths: the EU “is going through a crisis of values” (p.9), based on “accelerating demographic diversity” (p.15). The report’s authors argue that “…it is not easy or immediate to achieve a balance between the opposing sentiments of compassion and solidarity and those of fear, anger and suspicion towards those who arrive in our countries from distant worlds” (p.9). It positions the arts and culture as a bridge – a way of “creating a level playing field to allow persons of different cultural backgrounds to interact, learn and experience on a par with each other” (p.15).

This is a highly complex and multi-dimensional subject. The group chose three key themes for their chapters: empowerment, intersectoral, and evaluation. The first discusses the ways in which migrants might be empowered to take part in cultural activities. The intersectoral chapter addresses the necessity of involving other sectors in integrating refugees into societies – education, housing, and employment for example. The final chapter on evaluation talks about how these programmes might be evaluated. Evaluation is a tricky concept when it comes to culture, but a necessary one to address, especially as funders are increasingly placing more emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness. The group should be commended for tackling this topic, especially as they have included self-evaluations for the example projects they have featured, something which has not been done in previous OMC reports.

The report contains a lot of great ideas and wide-ranging examples – over 200, from asylum seekers’ dance classes and performances, to language learning and journalism training for refugees. My previous research has found that exchange via the OMC is most likely to lead to inspiration, rather than direct emulation or copying (Mattocks, 2017). Indeed, there are also important issues to raise regarding the overall design of the OMC and the goals of a report of this nature. Who exactly are these recommendations aimed at? The project examples are institutionally wide-ranging, from examples of individual artists’ practices to larger-scale ones undertaken by public authorities. Similarly, the report’s final recommendations, aimed at both policy-makers and practitioners, are broad – it is difficult to be both precise in recommendations as well as all-encompassing, and the heterogeneity of the Member States means that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach for 28 countries with vastly different political systems, cultural policy models, policy priorities, and funding structures.

The report contains a lot of stimulating, important ideas of the ways that arts and culture can promote intercultural dialogue (though, as far as I can tell, unfortunately refugees weren’t directly consulted themselves). It correctly emphasises the need for a comprehensive approach, but this is also part of its limitations: the legal constraints of the competence mean that it is left to individual Member States, or, more realistically, individuals or organisations within Member States, to implement their own strategies. Cultural policies and programmes can play a role in helping refugees to integrate into new societies, but there are bigger and broader political questions about migration – which can’t be answered in a report of this nature – that still have to be addressed.


Clarke, H.D., Goodwin, M. and Whiteley, P. (2017) Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

European Union (2017) How culture and the arts can promote intercultural dialogue in the context of the migratory and refugee crisis. Open Method of Coordination working group report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Mattocks, K. (2017) “A few sparks of inspiration”?: Analysing the outcomes of European Union cultural policy coordination. European Politics & Society. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1080/23745118.2017.1303885.

Published on 20/03/2018