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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Should the EU spend money on culture?

There has been some confusion surrounding a story in Monday's Telegraph. The headline, which reads "EU's secret £400m for 'crazy' projects", confuses two separate types of EU spending.

The 'secret £400m' relates to spending recorded on the Commission's EU funds database that is marked as "confidential". A budget line (e.g. humanitarian aid or justice and home affairs) and recipient country is provided but there are no details on how the money was spent or which organisation(s) spent it. Between 2007 and 2009 there were 727 such 'confidential' grants. The website merely states that "In certain cases, some parts of the information displayed on a particular grant or contract may be masked, e.g. for security reasons," which is pretty vague when it comes to £400m of taxpayers' money!

However, this should not be confused with the various culture projects cited in the article, which are not 'confidential' but funded through the EU's culture programme that supports a range of projects of arguably differing value (some good, some irrelevant and far too many outright wasteful). What counts as a worthy project will always involve a degree of subjective judgement - and we appreciate that the people involved in a project in most cases genuinely feel that their individual project adds value. However, at a time when virtually every European government is tightening its belt, the EU continues to propose budget increases and award projects which cannot possibly qualify as good value for taxpayers' money (which is both the fault of the Commission and member states). This is simply unacceptable.

EU spending on cultural projects is particularly interesting in this regard. Public money on culture is always controversial precisely because of the subjectivity involved. It's also interesting because it illustrates the crucial, real-life trade-off: spending £160,000 on a 'flying gorillas' dance troupe is all very well, but if taxpayers are faced with a choice between having their money spent on flying gorillas or a few extra nurses - we suspect most of them would prefer the latter. In an economic downturn, with Europe smack in the middle of a sovereign debt crisis, this is the trade-off we're facing.

And even leaving this aside, should the EU really be involved in culture in the first place or is this better handled nationally, regionally or locally? Here there's also a democracy problem: involving the EU moves accountability for these controversial spending decisions a step further from citizens and there is no one to punish at the ballot box if taxpayers feel their money is being spent inappropriately. This, in turn, breeds contempt and the type of sentiments that the Commission professes it wants to work against through its various cultural and communication programmes.

However, what should be said is that when it comes to the cultural programme, the Commission is commendably transparent about where and by whom the money is spent (the UK also has its own system which you can search) - which is not always the case for the rest of the EU budget. So to clear this up, these projects were not funded via a 'secretive' EU fund and the details of the funding can be accessed publicly online.


Joe said...

To summarize a point once made by Hanryk Broder: Forget culture. They should worry about civilization.

"Culture" as it's defines these days (the arts, colloquium of past times, etc.) DIES when you instiutionalize it. If these clowns saw anything in the world that didn't seem to them needing the smothering hand of government, they might realize that.

Unknown said...


First of all, may I thank Open Europe for clarifying the confusion surround the Telegraph article and for making it clear that EU funding for culture projects is totally transparent.

I would, however, like to comment on some of your own assertions.

You say that 'what counts as a worthy project will always involve a degree of subjective judgement'. Yes, that's true, but perhaps it's worth acknowledging that all the projects funded through the EU Culture Programme are subject to an open and rigorous assessment by independent external experts.

I would also question your comment that 'at a time when virtually every European government is tightening its belt, the EU continues to propose budget increases and give money which cannot possibly qualify as good value for taxpayers money'.

The 400m euro budget for the Culture Programme, which covers a seven-year period (2007-2013) and is split between 35 countries, was agreed by all EU governments, including the UK. So it is incorrect to suggest that the EU is now proposing budget increases.

We would contend that investing in culture is excellent value for taxpayers' money. Every euro or pound invested in cultural projects supports jobs in the sector and also attracts substantially more investment from public and private sources.

We're not the only ones who think that cutting funding for culture and the arts is bad for business. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2010/jul/27/arts-funding-cuts-government

We passionately believe that the EU should be involved in culture, not only because of the jobs and revenue it creates, but also because it breaks down barriers.

You won't be the first or the last to question the need for support for culture in tough times. Indeed the history of Europe is littered with examples of people who used economic woes as an excuse to suppress culture and diversity. Anyone up for a book-burning session?

Regarding the projects which are listed as confidential: do you seriously think it is a good idea for us to publish details of a grant made, for example, to a group fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan? The Taleban would probably thank you, the women almost certainly wouldn't.

Dennis Abbott
Spokesperson for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
European Commission

coxie said...

why not, they waste money on everything else.

Open Europe blog team said...

Many thanks Dennis, it’s great to hear your point of view on this.

Let us take up the issues you’ve raised:

- First, when it comes to assessing the value of cultural projects, the fact that there is an ‘independent panel of experts’ does not change the fact that they are unaccountable to taxpayers. By the way who are they? They are certainly not easily identified by browsing the DG Culture website.

- Secondly, with regards to belt-tightening, the UK, for example, is set to dramatically cut funding to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and a number of projects have already been scrapped (see http://www.culture.gov.uk/news/media_releases/7191.aspx).

The Commission on the other hand is proposing an overall budget increase of nearly 6 percent and there is no sign of cuts to culture programmes to reflect the economic climate. In fact the opposite is the case – under the Culture 2007-13 programme the draft 2011 budget reads – “with EUR 57 million proposed in 2011, this represents an increase by 6,3 % compared to 2010.” (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/budget/data/DB_2011/EN/SEC00.pdf, p41)

Several member states are opposing this move. The fact that a financial perspective was agreed several years ago when the economic times were very different is neither here nor there – national governments have been forced to cut back on a range of previously agreed spending items. Why in the world should the EU be exempt?

It is not simply the cost of the expenditure but also the administration costs that we would take issue with. By the Commission’s own figures, there are more people employed in DG Education and Culture (500) than in DG Internal Market (466) (http://ec.europa.eu/civil_service/docs/europa_sp2_bs_cat-sexe_x_dg_en.pdf). This is surely a questionable use of human resources given the EU’s competences and stated priorities. Or perhaps this is what you had in mind when you say that “every euro or pound invested in cultural projects supports jobs”…

- Regarding the confidential projects. We’re not asking for the exact location or the names of the people taking part in cases which require a certain level of confidentiality, but it would be nice to know that this money is being spent on “a group fighting for women's rights” for example and/or building wells, roads, etc. It must be possible to provide more information than simply “Aid for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan”.

But we are curious about the confidential projects that included €544,000 going to Sweden for “criminal justice”, the €584,000 going to Canada for a “European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights” or the €7.7m going to Switzerland for “European Neighbourhood and Partnership financial cooperation with Mediterranean countries”? Do taxpayers not deserve to know what this money is being used for and by whom?

- By accusing us of trying to “suppress culture” you are simply creating a straw man fallacy, which we’re surprised to hear from the Commission. Because we want the EU to cut its budget and select projects which represent better value for taxpayers’ money we’re now in the “book burning” camp. That reference is somewhat counterproductive to say the least and perhaps more revealing about your attitude towards dissenting opinions rather than our attitude to ‘culture’.

Thanks for stopping by the blog though – it’s good that these issues are being discussed.

Unknown said...

Thank you for publishing my earlier reply.

To respond directly to your follow-up questions/comments:

The independent experts that are used by the Commission's Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency vary according to the project being assessed.

The experts are chosen on the basis of a permanently-open 'call for expression of interest'. You can find details on the website of the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/about/call_experts/call_experts_2007_en.php

The agency, which is mandated by the Commission to manage most EU-funded culture projects, assesses the experts' qualifications and contacts them if there are project assessments in their area of expertise. They do not assess applications from their own country. So a UK-based expert will not assess an application for project funding led by a UK-based organisation.

The agency also publishes the names of the independent experts on its website (further down the same page on its website). The list of the 2009 experts is due to be published shortly. The agency avoids detailing the precise area of expertise involved to reduce the risk of them being lobbied.

The Commission is not proposing a new increase in funding for culture! As stated earlier, the budget for 2007-2013 was set at 400million euros for this entire period and the breakdown by year during this period was decided by national governments. The budget is for 35 countries. We make commitments in advance because most of the projects we support are multi-annual projects, which require a reasonable level of certainty.

National governments and the European Parliament are informed about all the culture projects which receive EU funding. No objections have been received about any of the projects.

For more information on funding for the humanitarian projects labelled as confidential, I will have to refer you to the budget spokesperson. Issues concerning human resources are not within my remit either.

My response was aimed at questioning the reflex that we should automatically chop funding for culture (and put many jobs at risk in the process) whenever there is a downturn. You haven't demonstrated that this reflex makes any sense, economically or socially. You suggest that the EU should instead select projects "which represent better value for taxpayers’ money". You don't specify which they would be. We believe that investing in culture is excellent value for taxpayers' money, not least because it creates and safeguards jobs throughout Europe.

Polly Toynbee, writing in a newspaper yesterday, also highlights that the return from public investment is probably greater in the cultural industries than any other. "Tiny grants already stretch far into communities, making music, dancing and art, engaging with history and heritage, drawing people together in shared emotions and experiences. Civic pride, quality of life, pleasure and endeavour (and art for arts sake) is cheap for its rich returns, but it's not free," she concludes. Read the article - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/28/arts-funding-cuts-big-society . It might change your mind ..

I was, of course, being provocative when I referred to burning books. Open Europe is not averse to being a bit provocative itself from time to time and I enjoy a good discussion as much as you do. Perhaps this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Or to put it another way, to borrow the words of that great British cultural icon, Corporal Jones: perhaps they don't like it up 'em!

Unknown said...

Can I ask you one tiny favour.

If you decide to produce your popular list of 'pointless EU projects' later this year, may I politely ask that you take the trouble to check with me and my colleagues whether the examples you re-cycle from the Telegraph, Daily Mail and other august pillars of the press are actually true or whether the problem highlighted has already been sorted.

Anonymous said...

@Man from the Commission

You've had our money. You've wasted our money, on things we would not have chosen. You are part of the organisation that brought the world the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. No more favours for you, especially when you try to equate budget tightening with book burning.

You've been watching this too much:


It's a satire, not a manual.

Open Europe blog team said...

Okay, thanks Dennis, let’s go another round:

On what projects are good value for taxpayers’ money, let us offer some clues:

The explicit objective of the culture programme, according to the Commission, is to improve the “external visibility” of the EU and to help convince citizens “to give their full support to, and participate fully in, European integration.” (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32006D1855:EN:HTML )So that’s the first test: taxpayers’ money cannot be used to advance a certain political objective in the name of culture. But in the Commission's own words, that’s exactly what’s happening with EU funds for cultural projects (this also happens to be an objective which a majority of taxpayers in several countries don’t agree with). As we’ve argued over and over again (http://euobserver.com/9/28509 ), the Commission is failing this test – not only on culture but also on its “citizens’ initiatives” and its “information“ campaigns for instance.

Secondly, a project must be good value for taxpayers’ money when viewed in the light of the economic trade-off it creates. You say, categorically, that culture spending creates/secures jobs, but that’s a statement which is economically illiterate on several levels: It can do of course, but what we have to ask is whether spending on EU culture means job cuts or less investment elsewhere and whether taxpayers are okay with such spending priorities. Flying gorillas or nurses – that’s the trade-off you failed to address in the previous comment. We, on the other hand, make no apologies for highlighting projects which we don’t consider value for money in the current climate. This is a healthy and open debate about where and how public money should be spent.

You also fail yourself to provide a good criteria for what constitutes a worthy project, saying only “investing in culture is excellent value for taxpayers' money”. This is a painfully obvious case of a petitio principii fallacy, i.e. “EU cultural spending is good value for money. Why is it good value for money? Because it’s EU cultural spending.”

Thirdly, there has to be a clear link between spending and accountability – again, this link is severed by moving spending decisions to the EU-level (see more on our line of reasoning here: http://euobserver.com/9/28979). In many countries, there’s a vibrant democratic debate about the extent to which the state should be involved in “culture” (which Polly Toynbee gave expression to) – with opinions varying greatly on, for example, what culture is, how it should be funded and what can be justified in its name. Precisely because of this, the democratic link is vital.

This brings us to the “experts”. For 2008 you provide a list of some 280 names. However, there’s no more information about what decisions they’re responsible for, no affiliation, no background. Nothing. You say that you don’t publish details about their “expert areas” because you don’t want them to be “lobbied”. This is an interesting concern – in light of the stated aim of the EU’s culture programme (to foster European integration), may we suggest that the risk of selection bias on behalf of the Commission, is slightly more severe than the risk of these experts having their judgements clouded by cultural lobbyists. This, in turn, brings us back to accountability.

Open Europe blog team said...

Regarding our list of projects: we have been through this once, remember (http://openeuropeblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/dear-dirk.html)? Or must we remind you of last year’s episode when you circulated a note to journalists, without sending a copy to Open Europe, and without giving us the right to reply - even after we repeatedly called up and asked to be sent a copy. As it turned out, this note was also circulated without the DG for regional policy, Dirk Ahner, the alleged author of the note, having actually signed it off.

May we also remind you of the outcome of that discussion? Of the 17 Regional Development Fund projects analysed – none of them taken from the papers you mention (all of them from first hand sources, i.e. the Commission or managing authority with a couple of exceptions) – the Commission was saying that one of them was incorrect, in that EU funds were not in the end used for the purposes mentioned: the ‘Bulletin-board tender’, which Open Europe said was indeed being investigated by the Commission.

The Commission claimed that our assertion about Lanzarote hotels having illegally received EU funds was “incorrect”, but was only able to clarify that “the Spanish authorities removed the hotels from the ERDF programme” and it still hasn’t provided us with proof that no EU money was given to the hotels.

For all the other projects, the Commission either defended the use of funds, or simply stated that the example is correct, such as the fact that the Chairman of Porsche received €2,500 in EU rural development funds for a small estate in Bavaria where he goes hunting in his free time. For one or two, the Commission quibbled over the amounts spent.

So if we can ask you a few small favours in return: can you please in future 1) Give us the right of reply and drop us a line before you make claims about us to journalists (particularly as – ironically - you’re criticising us for not consulting the Commission or the managing authorities to "counter-check" our claims). 2) Check the documents you’re criticising before making assertions about them 3) And, a more general advice, make sure that your boss has signed off a letter before you circulate it in his name.

Unknown said...

The decision establishing the Culture programme does indeed state the following: "For citizens to give their full support to, and participate fully in, European integration, greater emphasis should be placed on their common cultural values and roots as a key element of their identity and their membership of a society founded on freedom, equity, democracy, respect for human dignity and integrity, tolerance and solidarity, in full compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union."

This isn't quite the same as an 'explicit object', but let's not split hairs.

The objectives of the Culture Programme are:

to promote cross-border mobility of those working in the cultural sector;
to encourage the transnational circulation of cultural and artistic output;
and to foster intercultural dialogue.

For more, see: http://ec.europa.eu/culture/our-programmes-and-actions/doc411_en.htm

We very much welcome constructive criticism and suggestions on how EU funding might be better spent.

It's not really fair to compare the Flying Gorillas with nurses. The EU doesn't have any competence for funding nurses. And just because the Flying Gorillas have a rather amusing name shouldn't invalidate the fact that they do a lot of good work with children and provide professional training, work experience, support and advice on placements for young people aged 16-24.

Re your argument about spending and accountability: the EU budget is decided by elected Ministers from the national governments and elected Members of the European Parliament.

I tend to agree with your comment about the experts.

In reply to the other message from 'anonymous', can I recommend Sitcom by Francois Ozon. A masterpiece of cinema.

I'm curious that a website devoted to greater transparency should attract comment from anonymous.

It's good to talk and I hope this will continue, if only to avoid any future misunderstandings. If you're producing a list of 'pointless projects', we'll be happy to check them in advance to ensure they're not incorrect. We have no interest in defending projects which shouldn't have received funding.

And now I really must focus on some of the other parts of my portfolio. Always a pleasure.

nigel warrack, the flying gorillas, said...

The articles in the Telegraph, Sun and Express attempted to ridicule the work of The Flying Gorillas by quoting publicity from our first ever show, Tango Argumentino. This was commissioned by Arts Council England in 1997 (under a Tory government)and had nothing to do with the EU Culture Programme.

There is a clear sign on the homepage of our website which says "Please click here to find out about our European Cultural Programme." This sign was ignored.

Tango Argumentino was a performance of contemporary dance with live music for children. There was a scene in which four dancers (two Tango couples) had to keep stopping their routine because one of the dancers kept burping loudly. The choreography, by Susana Garcia of the original Tango Argentina company, was technically demanding and introduced children to authentic art forms from other cultures. It was also very funny and was accompanied by live saxophone music. The show premiered at Riverside Studios, London and toured internationally to positive press notices

"uncompromising quality for kids" - the Evening Standard;

"a dynamic blend of virtuosity and wit" -Buenos Aires Herald;

"groovy" - Damian Thompson, The Daily Telegraph.

It is easy to mock the work of artists, especially by witholding important information such as the fact that our work is primarily aimed at children and that we have a youth programme which helps young people into work or further education.

jim said...

our government is always wasting money on pointless things

Unknown said...

I have met another sum EU spends for culture; it is some €170 million per year. But in fact it isn’t the biggest amount at all, some countries spend on arts much more money than that. But being transparent about how this public money is spent should be a basic principle since it goes beyond national borders. Some cultural projects need funding since the art always depended on patrons of art. bad credit payday loans might also be helpful in solving the problem.