Colloquy on: “European Culture: Identity and Diversity”
8-9 September 2005
Jacques LEGENDRE, Chair of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
Mr Secretary General,
Dear friends and colleagues,
I was invited to take part in your meeting in my capacity as Chair of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. I should like to say how delighted the whole committee is that the initiative was taken to hold this colloquy.
It might sometimes be thought that, in parliaments, and even in the Council of Europe, the Cultural Committee is not one of the most important committees. We are vain enough to think that this is a mistake and that culture is an integral part of the Council of Europe’s main concern, namely the protection of human rights, and that if there is something that accurately defines the European spirit, it is this will, this culture which leads us to set such store by respect for human rights.
For example, only the day before yesterday, at a committee meeting in Paris, we were discussing the relationship between education and knowledge of religion. We really felt that we were addressing fundamental issues. I am confirmed in this view when I remember the evenings spent recently in the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris, where the Ministry of Culture, dear Mr Paumier, had itself sought to illustrate the identity and diversity of culture in Europe.
I think that a colloquy such as this is fascinating. I think that it comes at just the right time, that we are touching on one of the Council of Europe’s central functions when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Convention, and especially when all the men and women present here explore the present relevance of this question.
Dear Fabienne Keller, mayors and MPs are incorrigible! The mayor of Strasbourg naturally illustrated her thoughts on European identity by referring to one of the great European thinkers associated with this city, Goethe.
Please excuse me if I spontaneously opt for the same approach. The constituency which I represent, Cambrai, a much smaller town than Strasbourg, has prided itself for three centuries on possessing a masterpiece by Peter Paul Rubens: a descent from the cross which had been commissioned from the artist, and which the artist brought to the town.
I should like to invite you to take a look at the career of Peter Paul Rubens. He was born in Siegen in Germany, then the Holy Roman Empire. He soon followed his family to Antwerp, received his initial training in the southern Netherlands, then travelled to Italy: to Genoa, Mantua, Venice and Rome, where he watched the grand masters and in turn left a deep impression.
Returning to Antwerp, he perfected his talent with a series of increasingly prestigious commissions, leading him soon to be called to Paris by Maria de’ Medici, who commissioned a cycle of paintings to illustrate her own life and that of King Henry IV of France. Only the painting illustrating the life of the queen was completed. It once graced the walls of the Palais du Luxembourg, which became in due course the seat of the Senate. This painting has now left the Senate, but as it has only gone as far as the Louvre, the senators cannot miss it too much.
There have been famous paintings by Rubens all over Europe since the 17th century: in addition to the masterpieces commissioned from him by the Austrian Hapsburgs and the Spanish monarchy at the high point in his career, he was part of a diplomatic mission to Madrid and produced his final masterpiece in London for the Banqueting Hall. Is this not the career and story of a great artist who perhaps belonged to one nation but was first and foremost a great European intellect and artist?
I could have invited you to travel across Europe in the footsteps of Erasmus, from Rotterdam to Bologna via Paris and Bâle (Goethe), but that has been done much better than I could have done it. The unity of Europe was clear from the time of the medieval universities, from Krakow to Coimbra, despite the great difficulties of communication. It is a truism to say that our continent is a land of exchanges between a hundred, if not a thousand, towns and cities that have sometimes been rivals and sometimes united. I am therefore firmly convinced that the cultural exchanges which we encourage in the wider Europe – the widest Europe – are an opportunity to get to know the best of each country’s contributions and, therefore, to gauge each people’s distinctive characteristics and the many mutual influences between them, which are so complex and so fascinating.
To this extent, the promotion of a European model that respects both the identities and the diversity of the cultures present is certainly the best means of dispelling the tensions between the remaining centres of aggressive nationalism. The spirit of discovery is another characteristic of Europeans. I shall not mention its dark side which sometimes appears in the form of the spirit of conquest, and here I should like to come back to Rubens: an artist who showed an infinitely respectful attitude in his portraits of Africans, a Flemish artist who also at this time gave us pictures of the peoples of Brazil, which had only just been discovered.
We are left with the testimonies provided by these masterpieces when the unrest, conflicts or even civil wars which tore nations apart at various times have virtually disappeared from our memories.
The artist’s untiring curiosity about otherness makes the European model a constant search for openness. I had the honour to invite my colleagues on the Culture Committee to a debate in the Palais du Luxembourg about the protection of the African heritage from the speculative excesses of the international market. Following my report, the Assembly adopted a recommendation calling on the governments of the 46 member states to contribute to this much-needed protection.
Next year we shall have the opportunity to visit the Musée des Arts Premiers founded in Paris on the initiative of Jacques Chirac. The inauguration of this new centre will give us a fresh vision of the importance of non-European arts, their inherent dignity and their influence on our own artists, from the cubists to the German expressionists.
It is in keeping with this spirit that we can and must celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Council of Europe’s Cultural Convention, while hoping that these ideas – protection, enhancement, research, openness – are shared by an increasing number of states anxious to preserve their cultural identity and foster exchanges which, in future, will enhance the message of respect for the diversity of intellectual works as a universal value.