Building Europeanness through the European Capitals of Culture: An Interview with Steve Green
This is part of a Roundtable on The European Capitals of Europe.
The European Capital of Culture (ECoC) Action, an emblematic EU initiative, has entered its fifth cycle since its inception in 1985. During the first cycle (1985-1996), nominations for candidate cities rotated among the Member States (twelve at the time). Only one city was selected each year, and it was usually a country’s capital. In those selected cities, the implementation of the “EU Action” relied on artistic programs, which were elaborated by city administrators within a loose context and in agreement with the EU Council of the Ministers of Culture. In the latest cycle (2020-2033), two cities (from two different Member States out of the now 27) have been awarded the accolade each year. Moreover, candidate cities now compete against each other domestically before applying. In addition, every three years, a city located in a country that has applied for membership to the EU is included in the ECoC program.
The next round of ECoC will start in 2034. As in previous cycles, the EU Parliament, the EU Committee, the European Committee of the Regions, the member states’ ministers of culture, and other stakeholders will participate in elaborating new regulations for candidate cities. Steve Green is an independent expert, known for his multi-faceted knowledge of and experience working on the ECoC Action. Here, he discusses the transformations that the Action has undergone as well as the possible evolution of the Action after 2033.
—Anastasia Paparis for EuropeNow
EuropeNow Has the ECoC Action fulfilled its initially stated goal of “bringing Europeans closer together by highlighting the richness and diversity of European cultures and raising awareness of their common history and values?”
Steve Green Over its 37-year history, the ECoC program has established itself as a strong cultural brand. Nearly 300 cities have either held the title or been candidates for the title. These cities have ranged from obvious cultural capitals (i.e., Paris and Florence) to lesser-known smaller cities, such as Umeå (Sweden) and Plovdiv (Bulgaria). The scope of the program has also varied over time, and the brand has had a strong appeal and impact. Moreover, cities that have been ECoCs have continued to be referenced in the media as European Capitals of Culture for many years after they have held the title. Each new ECoC benefits from the experience of previous title holders in raising awareness about the diversity of Europe; in fact, since 2014, we speak of European “cultures,” in the plural.
The program became fully competitive in 2013; since then, the bids for ECoCs have become professionalized and communities in ECoCs have developed self-esteem and pride in their respective cities. Indeed, the image of these cities has changed, as they have ripped cultural, social, and economic benefits from holding the title. Moreover, ECoCs have brought a wide range of Europe-wide issues to the fore. For example, Trenčín (2028) is a city with a large military presence. It intends to collaborate with other cities across Europe in the same situation to explore the impact such presence has on cities. Furthermore, as a mark of European solidarity, all currently designated ECoCs have organized projects to support Ukrainian artists. These local endeavors contribute to the widespread recognition of the value of the program across Europe. ECoCs attract tourists in great numbers, both in the year those cities hold the title and beyond.
EuropeNow After serving for so many years as chair or member of the selection and monitoring panels for numerous ECoCs, how would you describe the way in which the EU Action has changed?
Steve Green When the European Capitals of Culture project was put forward by the ministers of culture of Greece (Melina Mercouri) and France (Jack Lang), it was meant to be a celebration of “high” culture and heritage. For example, Lang was appalled that the UK selected a post-industrial city for its 1990 bid—Glasgow. In fact, the idea that culture could be a fundamental component of urban development took hold only slowly. Charles Landry, an authority on the “creative city,” organized his first workshop around that concept in Glasgow the year before the city became an ECoC. Scholars such as Franco Bianchini, David Throsby, and Richard Florida took the concept a step further. For example, Florida used it to expand on his “creative class” concept, as he developed the idea of the “new urban crisis.”
Later on, progressive city administrators, when reflecting upon the prosperity of cities and the wellbeing of residents, became aware not only of the importance of culture but also of the need for intercity connections. Hence, the European Union created several “capitals” programs around different foci: “Green Capitals,” “Youth Capitals,” “Capitals of Sports,” “Capitals of Innovation,” “Capitals of Smart Tourism,” “Capitals of Gastronomy,” and more. Valencia, in Spain, where I live, was chosen as the 2022 World Design Capital. Moreover, the network of World Cities Culture Forum now gathers forty-one cities from around the world that “share a belief in the importance of culture,” and the international network of United Cities and Local Governments includes a thriving cultural network. Many academic papers and evaluations have been published on the connection between culture and the creative industries focused on urban heritage, and a plethora of workshops and conferences have been organized on related issues. Culture has moved beyond the arts and into social policy areas, and many consultants have emerged to sell their services to candidate cities.
Cities now capitalize on these numerous networked opportunities. For example, in its application for 2026, Trenčin’s (Slovakia) indicated that if the city were unsuccessful in obtaining the ECoC title, it intended to apply to become a UNESCO Creative City instead. Importantly, the profile of ECoCs has changed. The title of the Action may have remained the same, but its nature has changed considerably. Cities that have held the title in the past—as recently as 2019—would not meet the current Action’s requirements. Not only have the required scope and depth changed, but so have the objectives put forward by candidates and title holders. Recent trends have shown that ECoCs now collaborate with their wider region, which was the case in Essen-Ruhr in 2012, Aarhus and South Jutland in 2018, Matera-Basilicata in 2019, and Bad Ischl-Salzkammergut (forthcoming in 2024). Moreover, the trend has been for smaller cities to apply, as seen in the applications of Bødo and Tartu for 2024 and Liepaja for 2027. Additionally, the focus has shifted to environmental issues; for example, in its application, Tartu2024 presented an environmentally conscious program of events. Bourges, a candidate for the 2028 title in France, organized a conference on “Culture as a lever against climate change,” which included speakers from three past ECoCs. Another theme that has mobilized candidates is that of “blocked memories.” For example, the Kaunas2022 program focused on recalling the city’s pre-WWII Jewish past, and the Wroclaw2016 program included a remembrance of the city’s German past, when the city was called Breslau. Finally, the ECoC model has spawned other localized awards. There are now national-level titles in Lithuania, the UK, Italy, Slovakia, France, and Serbia. Notably, Ukraine selected the city of Mariupol as its first domestic title holder in 2021—a city that has since been virtually destroyed by the barbarous Russian invasion.
EuropeNow There have been some changes introduced in the legal framework of the ECoC program through two EU Decisions (Decision 1622/2006/EC in 2006 and Decision 445/2014/EU in 2014). What is the nature of these changes and have they improved the ECoCs’ ability to meet the Action’s goals? Based on your experience as a member or chairperson sitting on numerous ECoC selection panels, how do you evaluate the impact of the legal framework on the development of the Action?
Steve Green These two EU Decisions effected important changes. The 2006 Decision came into force in 2013 and brought the new EU Member States of Central and Eastern Europe into the Action. Moreover, national governments no longer select cities; instead, an open competition was introduced by which cities directly apply. This competition is now overseen by an independent selection panel that also monitors ECoCs during the time between the award and the delivery year. The 2014 Decision came into force in 2020 and significantly enhanced the scope of the ECoC Action to include creative industries, audience development, and outreach with schools and communities beyond the usual arts audiences. It also introduced the requirement that candidate cities must propose a formal cultural strategy into which the ECoC title figures as one component. All these changes resulted from extensive consultations and discussions that had been facilitated by the European Commission. Formal independent evaluations were also considered, and people were invited to comment via open calls. The 2014 Decision gave rise to extensive debates between the Cultural Committee of the European Parliament and the national ministries of culture (who have the authority to make the final decision on nominations). Both EU Decisions led to the implementation of important changes in content and process, and the Action has continued to evolve and reflect key developments in the cultural sector of the ECoCs. While the initial 1985 intergovernmental agreement fit in half a page of text, it is telling that the 2014 Decision fills over twelve pages.
EuropeNow How have ECoCs integrated artistic programs into long-term development plans?
Steve Green The issue of “legacy” is one of the most important aspects of ECoCs. Each city usually has a different set of objectives, as it faces specific challenges. In broad terms, the Action has gone through different phases. In the early years, the ECoCs focused on organizing large arts festivals, mostly because there was only a short notice to plan anything suitable. Gradually, nominated cities linked the ECoC program to their long-term plans by using culture as a driver of change, for example in the regeneration of degraded areas; this was true, for example for Antwerp1993 and Dublin1991. Several cities also used the ECoC title as a catalyst for a significant expansion of buildings devoted to cultural activities (for example, in Luxembourg1995 and Thessaloniki1997). Marseille2013 was the last ECoC to adopt this kind of strategy. In contrast, Lille2004 and Liverpool2008 are the best examples of cities that have incorporated the ECoC Action into a long-term post-industrial urban overhaul. The key here is that the ECoC title helped them to kickstart a long-term and sustained development program that has extended well beyond the cultural sector. Rijeka2020 is a more recent example of a post-industrial city’s effort at effecting long-term change by incorporating significant cultural development. The preparation of a “bid-book,” which is the name for the application that candidate cities submit to their respective national ministries of culture, enables cities to closely assess their respective situations and present a “catalogue of dreams.” In recent years, a new emphasis on the behavior of the population has arisen. For example, Donostia San Sebastian2016 (Spain) presented itself as a post-conflict city; Matera2019 (Italy) had a poor reputation that city officials wanted to change; Kaunas2022 (Lithuania) engaged in a reflection about its pre-WW II Jewish past, and, currently, Chemnitz2025 (Germany) seeks to counter the rise of neo-fascism in the city.
The issue of legacy is also discernible in the cultural sector. The program in Copenhagen1996 (Denmark) helped several hundred cultural managers learn more about international co-working, and in Plzen (Czech Republic), the creative hub DEPO2015 gave independent artists a boost. In most ECoCs, the new festivals that were established for the occasion have endured. A side legacy has been the flourishing of the Universities Network of ECoCs (UNeECC), which currently gathers 52 universities located in cities that held the ECoC title and fosters inter-university cooperation.
EuropeNow What do you see as the main strengths and weaknesses of the new legal framework, as it applies to the current 2020-2033 cycle (Decision 445/2014/EU)?
Steve Green The legislative strengths and weaknesses tend to mirror each other. Many evaluations and reviews of ECoCs have considered political interference as the main obstacle to the implementation of a solid ECoC project. By the same token, a supportive political stance from local and national governments is a key factor for successful implementation. Indeed, many ECoC programs have been weakened by problems of governance at the Board of Directors level and by inefficient management by leaders and artistic directors. Likewise, a strong team from the outset of the selection is an asset. These two dynamics often overlap. For example, Liverpool2008 (UK), Maribor2012 (Slovenia), Galway2020 (Ireland), Timisoara2023 (Romania), and Elefsina2023 (Greece) all suffered from inadequate political governance and managerial problems, which led to much time being wasted in the four years from selection to delivery. On the contrary, Riga2014 (Latvia), Turku2011 (Finland), Plovdiv2019 (Bulgaria), and Rijeka2020 (Croatia) benefitted from coherent leadership.
On the operational side, the most difficult criteria for applicants to meet has been to prove the “European dimension” of their program. This concept is fundamental to the ECoC Action, and the clue is in the title. A city does not fulfill the objectives of the Action by simply being located in Europe and having a European history and heritage. Organizing a major program of European-scope events and projects has been difficult for many candidate cities—and the recent pandemic restrictions have made this organization even more arduous. However, it is expected that over half of the future events organized under any ECoC program will involve artists from other countries and that there will be cooperation with other European cities and local and international actors. Moreover, since Umeå2014 (Sweden), the principle of co-creation has been more commonly used. According to this principle, host cities collaborate with other European cities to organize shows and exhibitions.
EuropeNow In the Action’s evaluation criteria, there is only one mention of infrastructure: “the candidate city has or will have an adequate and viable infrastructure to hold the title.” Yet, many cities have used this opportunity to plan new urban interventions and architectural projects with cultural purposes. In bid books, how are these types of infrastructural projects evaluated?
Steve Green In recent years, the emphasis has been on whether the selection panel considers that the candidate city has the competent managerial capacity to organize itself as an ECoC. The artistic and cultural offer in a city today extends far beyond the presence of buildings representing traditional “high culture.” Recent ECoCs, such as Galway2020, Pafos2017, and Matera2019, significantly prioritized open-air activities, events based on digital technology, and projects that do not entail the use of buildings. The selection panel has only been interested in cultural infrastructure plans if those are a central part of the ECoC program. Experience has shown that most of the construction of cultural infrastructure comes in late in the program and often after the ECoC year has ended. However, some ECoCs have run parallel construction programs: new theaters, repurposed industrial buildings transformed into arts centers, etc. Tabalakara in Donostia-San Sebastian2016 and Depo2015 in Plzen2015 constitute such projects, but these construction projects are usually outside the management of the ECoC, and their timeframe, financing, and management are separate from the administration of the Action.
EuropeNow External and internal contexts are rapidly changing, with new concerns emerging globally: the climate crisis, refugee waves, health, urban planning, and more. How should the ECoC Action respond to these factors in its next cycle?
Steve Green There is no need to wait for the next ECoC cycle to incorporate these issues, which are already being included in projects currently. These difficulties impact each city differently. Thus, ECoCs incorporate these relevant topics into their respective programs according to their respective situations. However, there is a major strategic question. Should the ECoC program go on at all in the current context? We might ask whether the Action should endure by examining the external context and the trajectory various ECoCs have followed since they held the title. Some people have been quick to respond based on their self-interest. For example, some would like to see the program continue because many candidate cities have been waiting and a great number of additional cities could participate. Other people have mentioned that it would be too radical and risky to develop a new EU flagship cultural program because the ECoC has shown to be cost effective—it only costs the EU 1.5 million euros per ECoC. In general, the argument has been that the program has been successful and therefore would only require a few adjustments to go on. These and many other arguments have influenced decision-makers within the Culture Committee of the European Parliament and the national ministries of culture to maintain the status quo. Based on the 2014 Decision, the European Parliament and the Council  will put forward hundreds of relatively minor amendments to the original draft, which was written by the European Commission. The outcome might be a new and improved ECoC Action that will endure until the middle of the twenty-first century.
Culture is not an EU “competency.” Arts and cultural policies and related topics, such as urban planning or placemaking, are the prerogative of national governments. The EU can only intervene in cultural affairs by linking them to other EU policies, such as the ECoC Action. There have been different topics and themes built into the objectives of such policies, and some structural issues have emerged. Culture Action Europe is a network that lobbies for a continuous dialogue and knowledge exchange between the European cultural sector and EU policymakers. The network recently made an appeal to national ministers of culture:
A pandemic and a war have proven that we cannot go back to “business as usual” anymore. We need to face and address both old challenges and new emergencies. Hence, we need a courageous Work Plan for Culture that paves the way for future-proof cultural policies.
The same message applies to ECoCs. “Business as usual” should not really be an option for the 2034-2050 period. The EU is currently preoccupied with other central issues. For example, the New European Bauhaus has emerged as a creative and interdisciplinary initiative that connects the European Green Deal to living spaces and experiences. I assume that after 2033, ECoCs will need to put sustainability and the green economy at the forefront of their programs. It will no longer be enough to organize conferences or artistic events that highlight the climate emergency; a concrete program, with a budget of carbon emissions, as well as an associated finance plan, will be necessary. The ECoCs need to be leaders in thinking about how the arts and the cultural sector have changed because of the climate emergency, and they need to lead action on the topic as well.
Another obvious change lies in the development of digital technology. The ECoCs have been relatively slow to adapt to the digital world. Public relations and marketing still predominate in their strategies. It was unfortunate that a combination of governance problems and the COVID-19 crisis meant that Galway could not live up to the aspirations included in its bid to be the first “digital ECoC.”
EuropeNow What are your main recommendations for the ECoC Action going forward?
Steve Green I have many ideas about how to adjust the process, and I will introduce three of them here. Much has been said in recent years about the fact that many small cities have been awarded the ECoC title, with some commentators thinking that these cities cannot make an impact at the European level. I disagree. For me, today, an ECoC brings few benefits to cities over 500,000 inhabitants; such cities already have a thriving cultural sector in its many forms. In contrast, medium and smaller cities need the opportunity to upgrade their offer, and the ECoC title offers them the possibility to make the leap. However, in my view, individual cities’ bids should include partnerships with neighboring cities or their wider region. My second proposal is that the Action needs to go outside the EU more frequently. Selecting one ECoC every three years among cities in non-EU members is not enough. In this respect, it might be interesting to restore the idea of “Cultural Months,” which emerged in the 1990s, and link it to ECoCs. My third proposal is perhaps the most radical. ECoCs have been selected since 2013 on the basis of their plans for the future, not on their history, heritage, or current cultural offer. As part of the mandatory criteria, I would include an assessment of a candidate’s cultural performance in the three years before the selection. Has the city demonstrated a commitment to changing its cultural offer and acted on it? So, to the question “should the ECoC program continue?” my response is that it would be a missed opportunity if the Action went on with only marginal adjustments. If the Action could be radically changed, then it should certainly go on.
Steve Green was an independent expert member of the selection panel of the European Capitals of Culture (2012- 2016). He reviewed over 80 ECoC bid books from 2013 to 2023. He is the principal author of the official European Commission´s “Guide to Candidates” and maintains the blog www.prasino.eu, where he publishes ECoC surveys and annual reviews.
Anastasia Paparis, Dipl., MSc, M. Phil., PhD, is an architect, town planner, and urban designer with a rich academic teaching, research, and design portfolio. Her PhD dissertation was entitled The Identity of the European City through the Institution of the Cultural Capitals of Europe (in Greek). Her research interests cover a broad range of themes with a focus on cultural infrastructure and urban spatial identity. She is a member of the Pool of Experts for the ECoC (European Union).
 No 445/2014/EU, article 5 – Criteria, §4, b.
 Decision No 445/2014/EU of the European Parliament and the Council establishing a Union action for the European Capitals of Culture for the years 2020 to 2033 and repealing Decision No 1622/2006/EC.
 Culture Action Europe (CAE), 2022. “An ambitious Work Plan for Culture is needed.” CAE, https://cultureactioneurope.org/news/we-need-an-ambitious-work-plan-for-culture-cae-tells-the-council-at-a-cac-meeting/ (accessed 13/01/2023).
Published on July 12, 2023.