Conference: Cultural Heritage and EU Legal/Policy dilemmas

Last week I participated as a panelist at the final conference of the EU project HEURIGHT, held at University of Trieste in Italy. Focus was set on presenting the results of the project, i.e. the case studies conducted by its participants, which all dealt in some capacity with the legal definitions and regulatory frameworks of the EU. With the help of invited external experts, politicians and researchers, these studies and the overall project theme was then placed in a wider policy framework.

Photos: Matteo Fermeglia

After being welcomed by Francesca Fiorentini (PI; University of Trieste), the keynote was delivered by Lynn Meskell (Stanford University). She vividly described the ongoing politicization of cultural heritage in UNESCO, where bartering and diplomacy have now become the main goal and heritage properties but a means to get there. After her talk, a total of 14 individual presentations followed, divided into 3 sessions: Global Perspectives on Cultural Heritage, Cultural Heritage in EU Law and Policy, The EU and Cultural Heritage: Extending the Boundaries. The conference ended with a panel made up of Andrzej Jakubowski (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Fiorentini from the project, and me and Diego Marani as external commentators (Policy Coordinator for Cultural Diplomacy at the European External Action Service – EEAS).

Photo 2018-05-18, 22 55 12 (1)

As a panelist in the round table, my role was to sum up the conference and comment on the project results. I did so through a combined researcher and evaluator lens, drawing on my research findings, and the experiences I gained working at the European commission where I helped evaluate similar EU projects. I began by asking the PI’s what new questions they were able to ask now that could not have asked before, and encouraged them to showcase the main horizontal findings of the project. I then proceeded to list some of the threads I found most interesting.

The first concerned the project objective to examine if there is a legal obligation to cooperate internationally in cultural heritage. Here the members and network participants had managed to expertly pinpoint what is not said rather than what is said in legal texts concerning heritage. To find such gaps is extremely important groundwork. Both Fiorentini and Mira Burri (University of Lucern) identified a lack of genuine international engagement with heritage in laws that regulated trade and economic cooperation in Europe, where it appeared more as a cosmetic feature than a real concern. Hanna Schreiber (University of Warsaw) showcased the minimal EU involvement so far with the UNESCO convention on Intangible Heritage. In relation to security issues and illicit trafficking of heritage, Manilo Frigo (University of Milan), and later Hildegard Schneider (University of Maastricht), illustrated how recent texts from the UN security council appear to show a legal obligation to cooperate in this field but how, in reality, an intentional lack of definitions regarding what and how this should happen ensured that the agreements remained non-mandatory declarations of good-will. Despite this, all agreed that international cooperation had been stepped up in the last years and that, sadly enough, Daesh and the war in Syria was the main driver of change.

If we take these gaps and contradictions seriously, I went on to argue, we must also ask ourselves who they serve. Do the silences in the documents serve stakeholders on the ground, giving them less restrictions and more room to act? Do they mainly serve heritage professionals and experts who can use them to showcase their own importance and keep their jobs? Do they perhaps only serve political officials in the EU or member state governments, who can use the agreements to show (often falsely) that they have accomplished something of lasting value? Do they serve the self-interest of international organizations who strive to maintain their own relevance? Or do they primarily, as Fiona Macmillan (University of London) showed, serve private economic interests?

And so I stressed that a task for the next project, now that the gaps have been identified, would be to unveil the power dynamics that give rise to them and sustains them. For instance, I suggested the project could turn its key the question about the impact of contemporary challenges in the EU on heritage, into a question of how heritage impacts and fuels contemporary challenges in the EU.

Because, I continued, and this resonates with my own research: in political settings heritage has always been a Trojan horse. As showcased by Ivana Kunda (University of Rijeka) in relation to EU heritage strategies in the Western Balkans, sites and traditions quickly become tools or arguments. This can be extended to EU engagement in heritage as a whole, where a lack of legal competence has led to a focus on economic factors and vocational training in heritage, when in reality the objective has been to enhance EU:s stakes in the cultural sector and to create a European identity. We are sometimes fooled to think of heritage protection and restoration as unpolitical, but it is precisely because of the charged nature of heritage, as an answer to the question “where do you belong” that it can be used in these ways. Therefore, no matter the actual implementation of EU heritage actions or their effects, we must always consider the heritage of heritage as political leverage and an instrument of governance, and that neither heritage or Europe are inherently good causes.

Some of the speakers captured this dynamic in their talk, like Markus Prutsch (European Parliament) who spoke of the EU:s dual adherence to a European constitutional identity and a culturally based identity. Personally, I stated, I do not believe there is a sustainable future in maintaining such an contradictory duality, based on both “blood & soil” and constitutional patriotism. Better that the EU takes a stand for a true solidarity in difference. If heritage is not recognized as a political act and as something that changes over time, there will always be different answers to the question of what it takes to belong in Europe and who has a right to heritage.

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