In the words of Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission: “The European Capitals of Culture are a flagship cultural initiative of the European Union, possibly the best known and most appreciated by European citizens. They are a clear illustration of the EU’s commitment to cultural diversity, but also of how culture can unite people within Europe.
Indeed, the Capitals have always been an opportunity for Europeans to meet, to learn about their diversity, but at the same time to enjoy together their common history and values, to cooperate in new initiatives and projects: in other words, to experience the feeling of belonging to the same European community.
The European Capitals of Culture project is fundamentally a „cultural“ project. Over and above the task of uniting markets, bringing together the different peoples of this continent with their different ways of life, languages and traditions is clearly a cultural endeavour.
In addition to its intrinsic value, culture is also essential for achieving the EU’s strategic objectives of prosperity and solidarity, and ensuring a stronger presence on the international scene. European Capitals of Culture are proof that culture has a major role to play at the heart of our policies of sustainable development, because they are part of the long term development of European cities and their regions, as well as a source of stimulus for dynamism, creativity, but also social inclusion.”
The potential for a European Capital of project to transform the brand image of a city is a well-established part of the narrative of the project, particularly since the award has primarily been given to medium to small cities with a low or outdated national and international profile.
The award can be seen as a part of the more widespread trends in place branding for cities, with the use of flagship building projects, and a desire to position cities as creative and cultural spaces to attract tourists and talents. The brand development aspect also helps the cities to stimulate new economic activity (either through tourism or other kinds of economic development), and are also part of the desire to develop civil society pride and celebrate local narratives associated with a city creating or enhancing a strong sense of the place.
The main challenges to an awarded city´s clarity in brand communication of the event has been for host cities that already have a well-established cultural reputation and, conversely, cities without a strong cultural reputation and no sufficiently distinct vision or approach to event programming.
The initiative was first called the European City of Culture and was conceived in 1983 by Melina Mercouri, former actress and at that time Greek Minister of Culture, and her French counterpart Jack Lang. The aim was to highlight European common history and culture, and richness of diversity in nations and languages. Melina Mercouri believed that culture was not given proper attention like it was the case for economy and politics. The project was launched in the summer of 1985, with Athens being the first title-holder. In 1999 the name of the project was changed into European Capitals of Culture.
The European Capital of Culture title is given every year by the European Union Commission, precisely, the Council of Ministries of the European Union. The title is awarded to two cities from two EU member states. A document from the EU about the strategies and long term effects of the award is available here.
The conditions for candidate cities are listed in a comprehensive programme, with illustration of the role they had played in European culture, their links with Europe, and of course, their European identity. The cities also have to demonstrate current involvement in European artistic and cultural life, alongside their own specific features.
Future European Capitals of Culture have already been designated up until 2018:
Umeå (Sweden) is the current European Capital of Culture for 2014, along with Riga.
2019 –Two cities in Italy and Bulgaria (competitions are on-going between cities in these two countries)
2020 – Two cities in Croatia and Ireland (competition was launched in Croatia on 11 June 2014)
A new framework for the initiative has been adopted by the European Parliament and Council in April 2014. It includes the chronological list of Member States that can host the title from 2020 until 2033. This new framework makes it possible for a city in a candidate country or potential candidate for EU membership to hold the title every third year as of 2021. This will be selected through an open competition, meaning that cities from various countries may compete with each other. The Commission will be responsible for organizing the competition.
Ireland and Croatia will host the event in 2020. Croatia launched its competition on 11 June 2014, with Ireland set to follow suit soon. Until now, 8 cities in Croatia are preparing their programme for the candidacy. This bidding opportunity is very important for Croatia as it is the latest EU member and by this candidacy it has the platform to present its valuables to the other European countries. This also means great organisation within towns of all stakeholders and inhabitants included in their town’s revival. These cities are in need of excellent leadership- place managers who would integrate all the assets and resources into place branding opportunity. The organisation must provide clear vision of the candidate place followed by strategy steps required to achieve place excellence. It is a challenge that contains risk, but with the strong visionary leadership it can be turned into success.
As a conclusion, I cite the words of Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth: “The European Capitals of Culture is one of the most visible and successful initiatives that the EU has launched. As well as promoting the European Union’s wonderful cultural wealth and diversity, the initiative has been a catalyst for the transformation of cities, to the benefit of citizens and visitors alike. The competition in Member States to host the title is tougher than ever- and this is proof of its enduring value and appeal.”
If you want to know more, here is a link to a an EU page with some facts.