A frequent accusation against European institutions is that they live in a closed world, cut off from the life of citizens. Not always! As long ago as 1978, Europa Nostra, the federation of European cultural heritage NGOs, began to give awards for excellence in the conservation of monuments, townscapes and landscapes. In 2002, the European Commission took up the practice: today the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards are given in an annual event where one can catch a rare and impressive glimpse of European diversity, unity and an emerging sense of European identity.
This year another step has been taken. Europa Nostra and the European Investment Bank, but also the Council of Europe Development Bank, joined in a new annual effort to identify the “7 Most Endangered” monuments and sites in wider Europe and to follow up their identification with efforts to contribute to a resolution of the problems they face. This first year’s short list of 14 nominations was published on April 18, the International Day of Monuments and Sites. In its geographical and thematic diversity the list illustrates the wide range of issues relating culture to politics – and vice versa.
Under the European Union Treaty, cultural heritage is primarily a national responsibility. So what happens when nation states are effectively bankrupt? Are its monuments to be allowed to gently decay or even to collapse? The inclusion on the short list of the earliest church of the Manueline style, in the town of Setubal, Portugal, for which there exists a Portuguese conservation plan but no money, raises this problem in an acute form. If one believes there is such a thing as European cultural heritage – there are of course some people who still think “all culture is local” – then should there not be a European budget to cover such exceptional instances? Article 3.3 of the Treaty would justify the creation of such a budget. From the consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union for March 30, 2010, it reads:
“ The Union shall establish an internal market. It shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. It shall promote scientific and technological advance. It shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, solidarity between generations and protection of the rights of the child. It shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among Member States.It shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.”
Or what of the Renaissance monastery of San Benedetto Po, meticulously restored with local funds only to be seriously damaged by the May 2012 earthquakes, at a time where there is no longer local funding available? Then there is the forest and the buildings of the nineteenth century palace complex in Tatoi, near Athens, which could be made economically viable again, as it once was, but because of financial stringency is in danger of instead being disposed of in what might prove a fire-sale?
Another set of issues is raised by the pan-European drive for modernity. It so happens that Berlin is the European city with the largest surviving number of gas lamps, a positive feature of life for most Berliners. It also so happens that the City Senate and Department for City Development wish to electrify street lighting and that German conservationists are firmly opposed.
Similarly, a fishermen’s quarter in Valencia is threatened by a City Council plan for a through road to the port. And an even more devastating proposal threatens one of Transylvania’s most beautiful, scenic and historic regions, Rosia Montana, home to perhaps the best preserved Roman tunnel mining complex in Europe. A proposal for open cast mining to obtain the remaining gold by a Canadian-based company would destroy scenery and heritage alike. It is truly impressive that so well argued has been the principled resistance by Romanian conservationists and their allies across Europe that the Romanian government fortunately still hesitates to grasp for the gold, permit the use of cyanide and destroy its heritage, despite the siren call of those promoting unsustainable development with only short term gains.
How best to preserve the archaeological record of the past, which so often obtrudes on political objectives of the present? In Dürres, Albania, a Roman amphitheatre has been recently discovered in the midst of the modern town. By contrast, in Serbia a neglected Neolithic site of European importance on the Danube gradually dissolves. In Turkey, the extraordinary site of Hasankeyf on the Tigris, a store of archaeological knowledge, is threatened with the fate of Allianoi located to its west, namely permanent disappearance under the waters of a dam. And how damnable the consequences may be can be seen in Armenia, where a Soviet-era dam means that a fifth century church spends half the year under water. Should the Ministry of Culture attempt to dismantle the already weakened structure and rebuild? Or should the authorities set a limit to the annual rise of the waters? These conflicts are not at all conflicts between past and present. In Dürres, for instance, it is very clear that economic rationality demands the Roman amphitheatre’s conservation.
Cultural heritage forms an important part of most people’s identities. Sometimes, as with the superb eighteenth century citadel in Alessandria, Italy, or the magnificent seventeenth century fortifications by Vaubun in Briançon, of pride in local and national identity. Sometimes it can represent a moving recognition of another’s identity as with the Armenian Catholic Church of St George in Mardin, nominated by Europa Nostra Turkey. And sometimes it is a matter of mutual recognition and reconciliation, as in the ongoing work of the UN and many devoted conservationists of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in Nicosia, Europe’s still divided city where those who work for past heritage are striving simultaneously for present and future reconciliation.
Cultural heritage may or may not count, depending on one’s ideology or interest. For those, more empirically minded, who prefer to apprehend the general through the particular, the diverse yet united heritage of Europe provides a royal road for discovery of the need and benefits of unity.