Pure Travel (2012). 'Guide to the European Capital of Culture Cities 1985 to 2013', https://www.puretravel.com/blog/2012/12/27/guide-to-the-european-capital-of-culture-cities-1985-to-2013/
Evaluating the European Capital of Culture Initiative.
The ‘European Capital of Culture’ is an annual festival that has been running since 1985[1], a “flagship EU action”[2] and perhaps the Union’s most high-profile[3] enactment of its cultural policy. Naturally, what with Greek Minister Melina Mercouri having been the original intellect behind the programme, Athens was chosen as the first city to receive the Capital of Culture[4] title. Almost four decades later the festival has toured cities across the continent, the EU’s most successful cultural event[5]. Its founding objectives were to enhance cooperation between member states and improve their cultural actors’ mobility[6] through international cultural collaboration[7], as well as heightening the public’s awareness as to the capacity of their cities as “sites of cultural exchange”[8]. Thus, the concept of cohesion is central to the project, and more specifically European cities’ ability to dictate this cohesive Europeanisation process[9]. The European Commission advises that applicants for the title incorporate a “European dimension[10] into their prospective programmes, thus linking their local city’s culture to that of the wider common market and refraining from the festival being conceived as an exclusively “domestic event”[11]. Despite this, cities are given a wide berth in terms of how they wish to interpret the ECOC designation[12] and the oversight, creative direction, and – bar the 1.5 million euros awarded by the Melina Mercouri Prize to the selected city[13], and funding already offered through the Creative Europe scheme[14] - financing of the festival is achieved locally[15]. This has resulted in successful cities approaching the programme in differing ways[16], and their subsequent festivals often bearing little relation to EU identity or the organisation’s cultural policy[17] come opening night. 
            This apparent lack of enthusiasm amongst national ECOC actors to imbue the local with the community-wide has not gone uncriticised, with various post-festival evaluation reports having explicitly found fault with host cities’ meagre efforts at injecting a sense of ‘Europeanness’ into the proceedings[18]. Certainly, winning applicants have often placed more emphasis on the programme’s tourism dimension[19], despite arguments against such practice that cite the “displacement, distortion and devaluation”[20] of the arts that can arise when equating a region’s culture to that only that palatable to visitors. Also, as we have previously established: the EU’s cultural policy has become increasingly utilised as an economic regeneration tool[21], and this phenomenon is never more blatant than in the affairs of the ‘European Capital of Culture’ project, particularly since 1990. Indeed, when Glasgow – a hardened industrial city, riddled with social and economic malaise and far-flung from Europe’s traditional romantic capitals – was designated as the nineties’ first ECOC, it marked a revelation in terms of future applicants’ considerations as to a winning bid’s potential[22]. Since then, many contenders have judged the designation as an opportunity to rebrand their city’s image on both internal and international scales[23]. Despite being somewhat removed from Brussels’ hopes for a festival rooted in highlighting the “diversity of cultures in Europe”[24], this process of self-reimagination that cities often undergo in their time interacting with the ECOC programme can arguably contribute to ‘putting them on the map’ per se as a destination worth visiting, investing in, and culturally connecting with. This, when considered in the long term, could certainly be thought of as contributing to the programme’s overall objective of improved cohesion within the Union, delineating its boundaries of belonging through an exercise of what we, for this analysis, will call ‘cartography through culture’. 
This notion is nothing new; for centuries, European maps have been drawn and redrawn on the basis of “totalising classification”[25], and the European Union simply maintains this tradition. In fact, the European cultural space can be considered as one of the Union’s first adoptions of a rhetorical device to engage in discourse surrounding culture without having to exactly define it[26]. The European Capital of Culture project can be considered as having a spatialising effect on the EU’s cultural policy[27], concretising it through the tangible cityscape, and this spatial realising of the Union’s cultural strategy has prompted the Europeanisation of cities[28] both within and outside of the common market. For example, following the absorption of Bulgaria and Romania into the Union – “outliers”[29] in the EU’s eastern enlargement strategy – the Transylvanian city of Sibiu was selected as 2007’s Capital of Culture[30], a title the city boasts again this year[31]. The designation has been used as a means to brand the city as European, “remapping [it]… in the geography of Europe”[32]. Similarly, Istanbul, a non-EUMS metropolis at the confluence of Europe and the Middle East, was offered the title in 2010[33], thus broadening the perceived European cultural space[34] and extending the Union’s influence in the field beyond its own boundaries. 
            And so, this widespread operation of the Union’s Capital of Culture programme illustrates to its observers a map of sorts, a cartographic depiction of the EU’s cultural space[35] that becomes more defined with each passing year. Not only do the far-flung and varying destinations play into the EU’s motto of ‘unity in diversity’, but they also enable the consolidation of a “map-as-logo”[36], a long-time favourite of European political actors[37]. In addition to the idea of diversity that the ECOC action evokes, many of the cities chosen for the festival have had to consider new and innovative ways of narrating[38] and reconceptualising themselves[39]along European lines of thinking and, hence, fulfilling the EU’s foundational objective of improved cohesion and true unity between its urban centres. 
Irrespective of this concept of ‘cartography through culture’ – indeed, many former ECOC cities have been already well established European cultural hubs – the festival has proven to instil both economic and social benefits within local communities[40] across Europe. Respondents to a post-festival survey conducted by Ecorys concluded that being a European Capital of Culture contributed to “a more vibrant cultural scene”[41], as well as the emergence of local cultural networks that have gone on to collaboratively create and improve cultural infrastructure and host cultural activities scheduled long after the year of the festival itself[42]. Given the EU’s self-restriction in terms of its control over how each city interprets the festival, the difference between the resulting events affirms how the EU’s cultural space is “held together by this diversity”[43]; simultaneously, the ECOC – through its intertwining of the local with the multinational – conjures the image of a multi-layered yet united Europe while avoiding having to engage in discourse surrounding the ever-sensitive national aspects of culture[44]. In short: Mercouri was onto something positively ingenious. 

[1] Hughes et. al., 2003, 12. 
[2] Creative Europe, 2021.
[3] Sassatelli, 2008, 234. 
[4] Griffiths, 2005, 417.
[5] Sassatelli, ECOC, 226. 
[6] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 48. 
[7] Mokre, 2007, 35.
[8] Griffiths, 2005, 417. 
[9] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 54.  
[10] European Commission, 2020, 17. 
[11] Ibid., 18.
[12] Hughes et. al., 2003, 17. 
[13] European Commission, 2020, 30. 
[14] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 48. 
[15] Sassatelli, 2008, 235.
[16] Hughes et. al., 2003, 17. 
[17] Mokre, 2007, 35.
[18] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 56. See, for example: ECOTEC 2009.
[19] Hughes et. al., 2003, 13.
[20] Hughes, 1998, in Hughes et. al., 2003, 15. 
[21] Bullen, 2016, 100. 
[22] Griffiths, 2005, 417-418. 
[23] Cogliandro, 2001, 8, in Hughes et. al., 2003, 13.
[24] European Commission, 2020, 12. 
[25] Anderson, 1983, 173. 
[26] Sassatelli, 2008, 230. 
[27] Shore, 2006, 15.
[28] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 56. 
[29] Chiva & Phinnemore, 2011, 5. 
[30] Richards & Rotariu, 2011, 5.
[31] European Commission, 2021, 4. 
[32] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 56. 
[33] Bıçakçı, 2012, 993.
[34] Lähdesmäki, 2021, 56.
[35] Sassatelli, 2008, 230. 
[36] Anderson, 1983, 175. 
[37] Ibid. 
[38] Lahdesmaki, 2021, 57. 
[39] Sassatelli, 2008, 237. 
[40] Creative Europe, 2021. 
[41] Ecorys, 2011, 9, in European Parliament, 2013, 115. 
[42] Ibid.
[43] Sassatelli, 2008, 237. 
[44] Lahdesmaki, 2021, 56. 


text by Rhian O'Sullivan, MA student in Culture Studies, The Lisbon Consortium