Reflections on the Next Round of European Capitals of Culture: An Interview with Ulrich Fuchs

This is part of a Roundtable on The European Capitals of Europe.

Ulrich Fuchs, one of the most experienced members of the ECoC Selection and Monitoring Panel, believes that the European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) Action has in general been successful in meeting its initial objective. Fuchs has participated in the elaboration of the criteria used to select cities for the program, and he anticipates that smaller cities represent the future of this EU Action. He further posits that spatial development must occur independently from the ECoC initiative, in parallel to artistic projects. Most importantly, he also contends that in the next ECoC round, official stakeholders and European citizens must be included in the conversation.


—Anastasia Paparis for EuropeNow


EuropeNow How has the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) Action fulfilled its initial goal of “bringing Europeans closer together by highlighting the richness and diversity of European cultures and promoting greater mutual acquaintance between Union citizens?”

Ulrich Fuchs I believe the ECoC Action has in general been successful in meeting this goal, although all the cities that have participated in the program have not been equally successful in this realm. “Success” for ECoCs occurs through the organization of events that attract artists and audiences from various European countries and beyond. While some cities have failed in meeting this ECoC criteria, most of the more than sixty cities that have been ECoCs since 1985 have succeeded in showcasing the diversity of European cultures through highly varied and innovative artistic programs.

EuropeNow Over time, the ECoC Action has incorporated new criteria through changes in its legal framework. How have cities adapted to these changing goals when bidding to be selected as European Capitals of Culture?

Ulrich Fuchs The program was launched in 1985, and the world has changed since then. Europe has had to alter its culture and cultural policies to adapt to contemporary realities. The European Union has been enlarged, incorporating twelve more countries, and new decisions have come into force (the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2018, for instance), setting a new context for decisions, policies, and actions. Thus, not surprisingly, the legal framework for the ECoCs has changed as well. One of the most important changes has been the implementation of six new criteria in the selection process of the ECoCs through EU Decision 445/2014/EU. These criteria have required that each bid show that a city’s projects contribute to a long-term development strategy. Candidate cities must also demonstrate the European dimension of their plans. Moreover, projects must include cultural and artistic content, and the city must show its capacity to deliver an outreach and management infrastructure. Above all, cities must prove that they are not simply applying for short-term touristic and marketing reasons. Some members on the panel have considered other goals as well, but changing the legal framework of the European Union is rather bureaucratic and time consuming. From one ECoC round to the next, the legal framework changes and adopts, inter alia, the recommendations of the selection and monitoring panels.[1]

EuropeNow What cities have been most successful at integrating the ECoC goals into their long-term strategy for holistic urban development, and what architectural and cultural interventions have been included in their bids to reflect this strategy?

Ulrich Fuchs Glasgow1990 has been considered a success in this respect. However, over the last forty years, different ECoCs have used different strategies. At the beginning of the program, cities such as Athens, Florence, Paris, and Berlin mostly celebrated their status as well-developed metropolises and provided a generous cultural offer. Glasgow1990 was a game changer of sort, because the ECoC title became a catalyst for long-term urban development there and helped change the city’s negative image. ECoC such as Lille2004, Genova2004, Liverpool2008, Linz2009, Essen2010, and Marseille-Provence2013 all successfully followed the Glasgow model. In recent years, the challenges have changed, as urban investments have become more difficult to obtain. At the same time, we see that European values have increasingly become threatened by populism in some EU Member States. This attack on European values is probably one of the reasons why ECoC candidates have increasingly insisted on centering their applications and programs on cultural values such as equality, human rights, the freedom of the press, solidarity, the rule of law, and respect for minorities.

EuropeNow Among the selection criteria used in the ECoC Action, which would you recommend be changed in the next round that will start in 2034?

Ulrich Fuchs The current set of criteria, which was established in 2014, still makes sense as a legal basis. The only amendment I would like to see discussed is the question of the “European dimension.” This criterion appears in second place on the list; however, it ought to stand as a singular criterion separated from the others. The “Europeanness” of the ECoC Action should be considered a transversal value applicable to the whole set of criteria.

EuropeNow The evaluation criteria mention infrastructure only once: “the candidate city has or will have an adequate and viable infrastructure to hold the title” (No 445/2014/EU, article 5, Criteria, §4, b). Some have posited that the Action must be separated from cultural infrastructure programs because these projects usually take longer to be implemented than the timeframe of the ECoC program allows. However, many cities have taken the ECoC opportunity to plan new architectural or spatial interventions. How do you think these interventions, which are inseparable from the social and economic development of any city, can be made more explicit in the next round of the Action (2034 and beyond)?

Ulrich Fuchs Developing the capacity to deliver a European program that attracts both a broad local public and a wider European public is challenging. For large cities such as Liverpool, Essen, Marseille, Riga, or Kaunas, this has not been a problem. For medium-sized cities such as Plovdiv, Aarhus, or Chemnitz, it has been more difficult. For small cities such as Elefsina, Bad Ischl, or Liepaja, the ambition to organize a program that includes substantial spatial interventions has been nearly unattainable. Investments into cultural infrastructures cannot be a conditio sine qua non for smaller cities. The reality after 2033 will be that in smaller countries of the European Union, the number of cities that will be able to apply will be rather limited, and only small cities will seek out the title. This reality has to play an important role in the discussion about what will happen to the ECoC Action after 2033.

EuropeNow According to the EU publication “European Capitals of Culture: The Road to Success. From 1985 to 2010,”[2] one of the key elements of the Action is the legacy of the program on cities’ long-term development. Aspects of this legacy lie in the enhancement of public space and architectural and cultural infrastructure. Residents often take pride in the quality of their city’s public space and architecture, particularly as the latter relates to public buildings. In what ways do you think this potential legacy should be evaluated in the next round of ECoCs?

Ulrich Fuchs Candidate cities are under no obligation to invest great amounts of money in building new cultural infrastructure. Depending on their respective economic situations, some cities may not be able to invest much. However, renovating existing cultural venues and upgrading public space can have an important impact. “Legacy” is a rather tricky term. For example, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Mucem) in Marseille is a new museum on the city’s waterfront that constitutes a visible element of the (built) legacy of the ECoC program there. But let us not underestimate that legacy also exists in a metaphorical sense: overall, the citizens of Marseille were never very proud of their city; since the success of Marseille-Provence2013, they have become proud of their city.

EuropeNow Since the new legislation has entered into force (Decision No 445/2014/EU), certain global issues have been accentuated—for example the climate crisis and the different waves of refugees. Additionally, concepts such as “healthy cities” and urban “placemaking” have emerged and affected how people approach the cultural identity of European cities. How are those new developments integrated in the next round of ECoC evaluation? What other recommendations would you make for the next round of ECoCs, so that programs both fulfill the initial goal of the ECoC Action and address the concerns of Europeans today?

Ulrich Fuchs We should agree that a cultural project such as the European Capital of Culture program must consider global trends. Culture always reflects what occurs in the world, and sometimes art and culture even function as a “seismometer” for future development. For example, it is unimaginable that future European Capitals of Culture not embody Europe’s disillusion about never engaging in war again. The European Commission should soon start a process of intense discussion about the future of the ECoC project after 2033. This discussion should take place at different levels and should include a variety of actors such as experts, artists, cultural stakeholders, politicians, and scientists. It should also include European citizens at large.

EuropeNow What type of research has been conducted by scholars on ECoCs?

Ulrich Fuchs There has been substantial research activity around the ECoCs from the 1990s and onward. The first study compared the experience in ECoCs  from 1985 to 1990 and was conducted by John Myerscough in Monitoring Glasgow 1990 (1991), a seminal work in the field. Early in the program, Spyros Mercouris, the head of Athens’ Cultural Capital of Europe project in 2015 contributed some preliminary articles, setting the philosophical context of the program. There followed other EU publications in the form of ex-post evaluations, such as the two-volume European Cities and Capitals of Culture (2004) written by Palmer-RAE Associates and the European Capitals of Culture: Success Strategies and Long-Term Effects (2014) by Beatriz Garcia and Tamsin Cox. Scholars have conducted innovative research in master level and doctoral work, and numerous conference papers have been produced. Impacts-08 – The Liverpool Model (2010), a program resulting from a partnership between the University of Liverpool and the Liverpool John Moores University, developed a research model for evaluating the multiple impacts of culture-led regeneration programs that can be applied to the ECoCs and other urban mega-events. I could also mention your doctoral dissertation—The Identity of the European City through the Institution of the Cultural Capitals of Europe – Athens1985, Glasgow1990, Lisbon1994, and Thessaloniki1997 (2011)—and the book edited by Tuuli Lähdesmäki entitled Identity Politics in the European Capital of Culture Initiatives (2014). The number of publications has grown over the years, so much so that we can now argue that the ECoC Action has been sufficiently documented from various angles (political, economic, sociocultural, and environmental), investigated, and evaluated. Moreover, comparative studies among various ECoCs open new perspectives for a more comprehensive knowledge of the Action.

EuropeNow What has been the role of intercity networks in the ECoC program?

Ulrich Fuchs During the first stage of the Action, Spyros Mercouris and other pioneers (for example, Volker Hassemer, Hatto Fischer, Ingo Weber, and others) initiated the creation of the European Capitals of Culture and Cultural Months (ECCM). The ECCM gathered a network of past, present, and future ECoCs seeking to exchange ideas and provide each other with mutual support. ECCM fostered the organization of conferences and meetings in Athens (in 2005, 2007, and 2015). However, this initiative stopped after the passing of Spyros Mercouris. An NGO led by Hatto Fischer and Anna Arvanitaki—”Create and Do” (Ποιείν και Πράττειν)—collaborated with the ECCM to develop initiatives around culture, cultural policies, and cities in Europe and beyond. Another network was set up by a group of European universities located in various ECoCs: the University Network of European Capitals of Culture (UNeECC). This network has thriven and organized an annual conference and other successful activities. CultureNext is another network composed of ECoCs; it was established by the Cluj Cultural Center in Romania in 2017. Its mission is to support past, present, and future ECoCs in their sustainable development and to foster meaningful legacies  for the ECoC program. The network comprises 29 cities in 19 European countries.

However, certain concepts have not been approached by any network. For example, “European Culture” as an ontological entity, the relationship between culture and the European city as a sociocultural and spatial entity, the cultural identity and meaning of urban public space, and more. Therefore, a research institute is needed, which could assemble all aspects of the ECoC Action and set a scientific and artistic framework for investigating the topic from an interdisciplinary and holistic perspective. In this context, studies comparing different ECoCs could possibly be prioritized. Finally, such a research institute could greatly contribute to the critical evaluation and, most importantly, the capitalization of the Action’s legacy.



Ulrich Fuchs has taught at several European universities, among them the universities of Bremen (1984-2005), Mainz (1993-1996), and Avignon (2001-). He has been an advisor for several cultural institutions: the Bremen Theater (1984-2003) and the Bremen Local Authority (2003-2005). He was the deputy managing director and program director for Linz2009 (2005-2009) and Marseille-Provence2013 (2010-2014). He was part of the Selecting and Monitoring Panel and chair of the European Commission for the ECoCs between 2014 and 2019.


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 focused on The Identity of the European City through the Institution of Cultural Capitals of Europe. Her research interests cover a broad range of themes with a focus on cultural infrastructure and urban spatial identity in Europe. She is a member of the Pool of Experts for the ECoC (European Union).


[1] The legal framework changes with each ECoC round. That is for the round 2021 – 2033 the legal framework changed in 2014, after an open consultation of the EU Commission with a) the European Parliament, b) the Committee of the Cities and Regions, c) the Ministries of Culture of EU countries, and d) other cultural stakeholders and experts.

[2] European Communities, 2009. DOI: 10.2766/59910.


Published on July 12, 2023.




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