Interview with José Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission

Quaderns de la Mediterrània: The European Commission, especially since your Presidency, has demonstrated its conviction regarding the central role that culture should play in the European project. With this in mind, the Common European Agenda for Culture proposed by the Commission in 2007 established promoting intercultural dialogue as an objective. Finally, 2008 was declared European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. What types of initiatives do you hope will emerge from this framework and what results would you like to be attained?

José Manuel Durão Barroso: Every day, Europe is becoming increasingly culturally diverse. Globalisation, enlargement and immigration have reinforced the multicultural nature of many countries, adding more languages, religions and traditions. Intercultural dialogue now lies at the heart of our intra-European relations, thus promoting citizenship and European identity. At the same time, from the ignorance, intolerance and the lack of respect that generate tension and clashes between cultures, a deep sense of insecurity has emerged in a significant sector of society. Therefore, intercultural dialogue has become a key instrument for external relations. The European Year of Intercultural Dialogue that has also been declared Euro-Mediterranean Year of Dialogue between Cultures should help us to recognise that cultural diversity is a challenge, but above all a great opportunity. It should foster within us all the desire to explore the benefits of our cultural wealth, our common heritage and, above all, give us the opportunity to learn more about the traditions and cultures of other nations in the world. 

This year’s activities should also make Europeans more aware of the importance of a citizenship that is open to the world, respectful of cultural diversity based on universal values that are common to all. The Commission intends to make user-friendly instruments available to citizens that will enable us to acquire the knowledge and skills to manage the complex multicultural nature of our environment, so as to be able to perceive within it something enriching and positive. This European Year of Intercultural Dialogue is using a 10 million euro budget to support a series of projects at European and national level, and also within third countries, and a public information and awareness campaign. The active participation of civil society will be the determining indicator of the success of this initiative. 

Q.M.: You have said that globalisation should not imply uniformity, but rather that it should be considered an extraordinary opportunity for promoting and obtaining worldwide recognition of European cultural production. How do you think that growing cultural diversity in our societies can promote this cultural production?

J.M.D.B.: Globalising knowledge provides us with the option of incorporating into our daily affairs contributions that come from others. Cultural production is enriched with knowledge. The “mergers” that are so fashionable today, are the fruit of the cultural mix that so enriches cultural production. As for globalisation, it gives us more knowledge, enables us to know ourselves better, and to demonstrate that to others. In our Mediterranean area, this has been a constant exchange. This is how our history was woven; this is how our nations have existed and will continue to exist. 

Q.M.: Managing the coexistence of different religions in European countries has become a controversial issue. What role can dialogue between cultures play to promote the existence of different faiths in Europe?

J.M.D.B.: Dialogue between cultures includes, without a doubt, dialogue between religions. Religion, as well as being a personal choice, is obviously a component of identity that is not only personal, but social. Historically, religions, or rather the use of the identity of the latter, gave rise to much conflict: national wars, massacres and expulsions; atrocities that we should have left behind us. Unfortunately, today it remains a source of discord. For this reason, it is necessary that religious leaders are aware of the messages that they are projecting, and that they emphasise aspects common to the different religions. However, also in terms of human development, it is necessary that positions are not radicalised, nor religious texts interpreted negatively. It is also necessary that each of us, when exercising our religious or secular beliefs, claim their personal and moral character, and not simply assume their social or identity-providing features. As in many other aspects of our life, knowledge, tolerance and respect should form the basis of our relations with others who do not profess the same religion as ourselves. 

Q.M.: New information and communication technologies are changing the way in which knowledge and culture are produced and disseminated. With this comes the challenge of adapting traditional media, but also the opportunity of optimising the creative potential of all citizens. What is your opinion on the possibilities that the digital era affords for promoting intercultural dialogue? In this framework, mass media are privileged instruments for providing knowledge of the other. What actions are the European authorities carrying out to promote the said knowledge and dialogue?

J.M.D.B.: I do not think that I am much mistaken if I say that today a young person’s mentality more closely resembles that of another young person from whichever culture or continent, than that of his/her grandfather or great-grandfather, even if they have never been far from their families. This is owing to mass media and also to audiovisual and electronic media, that enable not only ideas, but also images to be shared. We no longer imagine what others are like or how they live in other places; we know because we see it. Audiovisual media also reaches a greater number of people because less technical knowledge is required to process them. As we see every day, mass media can be bridges of knowledge, but also become sources of discord and tension if used in a partial or sectarian way. For this reason, education, reading and open-mindedness are so important so that citizens are better able to react to and interpret the information that they receive. 

The Commission is aware of the importance of mass media as reporters or opinion generators, but also as possible catalysts of human reactions. Thus they have great social responsibility and we should therefore support conveying messages that reflect an intercultural sentiment, diversity, and, above all, mutual respect and tolerance. The Commission has many communication tools and cooperation programmes. For example, the Euromed region has strong links with the mass media. After years of work at bilateral level with Mediterranean countries, the first Euromed regional cooperation “Information and Communication” programme was launched in 2003 as a means of providing skills training, but particularly to promote mutual trust. Currently, a new programme is being prepared (2007/2008-2010) that provides for consolidating journalism schools and universities networks, as well as continuing the Euromed workgroup created as a consultative committee for the Commission, and the mass media in the region. This workgroup is at the core of the programme’s rapid reaction mechanism. 

Q.M.: A fundamental idea seems to be that in the dialogue between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbours, one has to bear in mind the role and leadership of intellectuals, creators and writers. Facilitating the flow of knowledge and ideas and united cultural production means translation, mobility, exchange forums, and so on. How will Europe set about promoting the atmosphere required for creating shared Mediterranean values?

J.M.D.B.: The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, since it was established through the 1995 Barcelona Declaration, recognises intercultural dialogue as essential for peaceful coexistence and regional development. Therefore, one of the three pillars of the Partnership is human, social and cultural development. The Mediterranean has always been seen as a cultural melting-pot; a place where goods are traded, but also where ideas and knowledge are exchanged, and this despite all the conflicts that have taken place in this common area. From the outset, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership played an active part in the cultural sector and cooperation in this area began when it was established. Programmes such as EuroMed Heritage, Audiovisual, Youth or the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures are clear evidence of joint intercultural collaboration and have enabled regional creativity to be harnessed. For example, with 15 million euros, the Audiovisual Programme has trained 500 professionals in the audiovisual sector from the Mediterranean countries, has supported the production of more than 100 joint films, and has promoted the distribution of co-productions or productions from one region to another. 

Also, this year, the third meeting of Culture Ministers will take place (the first for 10 years). At this meeting, the Commission trusts that the importance of intercultural dialogue will be acknowledged, that there will be a great drive to promote the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures and, above all, that it will stir up thought on developing a Euro-Mediterranean culture strategy. 

Q.M.: Initiatives such as the Alliance of Civilisations have re-emphasised the importance of the complementary nature of a global civilisation dialogue and the objectives of the Anna Lindh Foundation. As this new phase begins, what is the role attributed to the Anna Lindh Foundation? 

J.M.D.B.: The Anna Lindh Foundation was founded with a clear objective: to promote dialogue between cultures. Aware of the importance of this goal, we created an institution which is unique within the Partnership that is supported not only politically but also financially by all Euro-Mediterranean partners. Also aware that dialogue occurs between people and that therefore the civil society of every country plays a crucial role, from the start the Foundation structured its work in national networks of bodies and institutions that related to its objectives. 

Up until now, the Foundation has had two main tasks: the first being to organise itself; it is not easy to create an organisation of this nature. Today, with the appointments of the President, André Azoulay, and the Executive Director, Andreu Claret, the Foundation will have a management team and a new leadership that will enable it to prioritise concentrating on its work content. Its second main task is precisely that. Up until now, the Foundation has financed projects categorised as broad themes: education, mass media, youth, etc. Today, without abandoning its support of various projects, from my understanding the Foundation should establish a strategy of action to include, among other matters, monitoring, analysis, thought, conflict prevention, awareness-building and leadership in its field. All of this will be supported by national networks. It is important that it works in a reciprocal way: in other words, that the national networks also feel supported by the Anna Lindh Foundation to help and enable them to secure their own work. The Foundation, to conclude, must become the Euro-Mediterranean reference for dialogue between cultures.