Cultural Policies in Changing Realities: Participatory Turn in the European Capitals of Culture Programme

Szilvia Nagy, Local Operators’ Platform

Introduction: The European Capitals of Culture Programme

In recent years, participatory approaches have become indispensable components of policy documents and recommendations of the European Union and especially in the field of culture. On the one hand, this strife for more inclusion of citizens in decision-making could be aiming at overcoming the democratic deficit that EU continues to suffer from. On the other hand – locally – participatory planning and implementation could support cultural sustainability. But is this really the case? Is the participatory turn taking over in cultural policies?

This article addresses the issue of participatory governance in the framework of the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) programme of the European Union. It will raise questions with regard to the participatory turn and place pointers for further analysis.  After a brief overview of the development of the ECOC programme, I will address the participatory approaches on two levels, discussing the systemic and local approaches that can enable or block the implementation of participatory decision-making and planning. The study ends with a reflection on the potential of participatory programming and offers recommendations for further development.

The European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) programme is often pointed out as the most recognised cultural initiative of the European Union. In the framework of the programme each year two or three cities are designated and funded for a period of one calendar year to organise cultural events with a strong European dimension. The host member states are officially selected by the European Commission prior each cycle, currently up to 2033. The ECOC  has existed since 1985 – and the related policy documents are also available for the whole period – therefore the transformations of the related policies are available for research. In the decisions and regulations a shift from the top-down approach of high culture – recognisable in the first and second period of the ECOC programme between 1985 and 2000 – towards the participatory model or more bottom-up approaches (Sassatelli 2013: 64-65) can be observed. While the programme itself is well established – and a popular research topic in urban studies and economics – there is a lack of integration theory approaches dealing with the leading ideologies behind the programme, and especially with the participatory turn.

Mittag, for instance, traces the origins of the ECOC programme back to the Hague summit (1969) which, together with the ‘Document on European Identity’ (1973) and the Tindemans Report (1975), served as the basis of the new approach to culture within the European Community. Namely, to “consider culture as a ‘tool’ to foster European identity and to strengthen the support for European integration” (Mittag 2013: 40). Alongside this altered approach to culture, the simultaneous presence of some important phenomena lead to the establishment of the ECOC programme. On the one hand, in order to step away from the stagnation of the European integration process (Eurosclerosis) following the crisis in the European Community’s agriculture and financial policies in the 1970-80s, the EU Council and Commission planned to invest in Europe’s cultural heritage, hoping to regain trust in the Community and to improve the image of EU integration in general.

On the other hand, the failure of Greek integration into the EU in 1983 necessitated a successful intervention from their side at the European level. Finally, the model of cultural projects – such asFéte de la Musique – gradually proved to be successful as a tool to bolster the belief in European integration. Against the backdrop of these events a framework was provided for a cultural policy initiative focusing on European integration. These correlations lead to the facilitation of the proposal of Greek cultural minister Melina Mercouri for a cultural programme named the European City of Culture (Mittag 2013). Mercouri’s primary idea was to facilitate dialogues between peoples in different cities, within the European Community, but the European Ministers of Cultural Affairs proposed an additional objective for the programme: to strengthen the general image and acceptance of the European integration process (Mittag 2013). However, it was only after the establishment of the European Parliament’s Cultural Committee in 1983 that the committee could openly argue that culture can be an essential tool for integration, and therefore demand an allocated budget (Staiger 2013).

The ECOC programme was first implemented in 1985, becoming one of the first schemes in the area of culture on the Community level (Staiger 2013). In these first years, the programme was mainly a summer event in well-established European cultural centres – Athens (1985), Florence (1986), Amsterdam (1987), West Berlin (1988), Paris (1989) – focusing primarily on high culture and incorporating already existing events and festivals. However, the main role should have been to promote a European dimension to cultural action and further the rationale of a cultural basis for integration (Staiger 2013; Mittag 2013; García 2004).

In the 1990s, with Glasgow (1990), the attention of ECOCs shifted from already established cities of high culture to smaller, post-industrial cities. The ECOC programme was accompanied with culture-led urban regeneration programmes, cultural tourism, diversified socio-economic growth, involvement of local communities and the establishment of alternative cultural spaces (Staiger 2013). As these regeneration projects aimed at long-term effects, the ECOC programme became a tool for post-industrial urban renewal through the implementation of cultural policy (Patel 2013). Parallel to these changes the first participatory approaches emerged hand-in-hand with the social regeneration projects, such as the project Preaching in Another Man’s Parish. Since 2010, participatory frameworks have developed further, fulfilling the social dimension requirements of the programme. The involvement of citizens, audience and local communities have been accomplished on various levels and with altering intensity.

Participatory Turn in the European Capitals of Culture Programme

Participation is inevitably an important element of democracy and a requirement for legitimacy and accountability. According to Fischer, “participatory governance is a variant or subset of governance theory that puts emphasis on democratic engagement, in particular through deliberative practices, a form of democratic engagement to deepen citizen participation in the governmental process” (Fischer 2012: 457). In this framework, governance refers to a new approach for decision-making that emerged in the 1990s, while participatory governance offers a framework for public engagement through deliberative processes, especially for the empowerment of citizens.

Therefore, in participatory governance the most general and widest understanding of participation is applied, one in which participation means that a planning process or given programme should involve the actors to be affected (Turnhout, Van Bommel and Aarts 2010). According to Fischer and Banyan, participatory governance can lead to: a more equal distribution of political power; a fairer distribution of resources; citizen empowerment and community capacity building; the development of a wide and transparent exchange of knowledge and information; the establishment of collaborative partnerships; the decentralisation of decision-making processes; and greater accountability (Fischer 2012; Banyan 2007).

LOCOP / Axel Braun

Participatory governance theories are interlinked with participatory democracy approaches. Schaap and Edwards describe participatory democracy as “democratic arrangements and practices that allow for direct individual and collective participation of citizens in public decision making”, where the key feature is citizens’ direct participation in the regulation of the key institutions of society (Schaap and Edwards 2007: 663). They track the origin of the concept back to the ‘New Left’ model of democracy and connect the current participatory turn with the global democratic deficit of the 1990s, which was mainly indicated by decreasing electoral turnouts, the lack of trust in government and traditional politics and a crisis of legitimacy in local government (Schaap and Edwards 2007; Nagy 2018).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the understanding of participation in ECOCs, we encounter a wide variety of definitions and practices under the collective term participation. In a recent paper Tommarchi, Hansen and Bianchini listed four altering concepts of ‘participation’ in relation to ECOCs in research. Firstly, participation can be understood as audience engagement in the framework of audience development. Secondly, volunteer programmes are often being used by ECOCs as participatory structures. Thirdly, a more active form of participation is where citizens take part as co-creators of cultural content. And fourthly, participation is applied to the overall process: planning, implementation and evaluation of the programme (Tommarchi et al. 2018). In my approach, I follow this widest understanding of participation, and believe that the participants who will be affected by a planning process should be involved in every stage of that given process.

As the ECOC programme’s stakeholders are most active on the supranational (EU level) and sub-national (local) level of the multi-level governance structure, or simply ‘bypass national and even city cultural and economic development policy’ as Evans formulated it (2003: 426), I will focus on the processes related to the implementation of participatory frameworks by addressing these two levels.

The supranational level mainly includes systemic approaches: tendencies that originate from the cultural policies on EU level and the structure of the ECOC programme. Here I attempt to name a few of the main challenges. On the one hand, one of the main problems I identify is the lack of clear concepts. The lack of clear definitions and guidelines is a weakness of these cultural policies not only in relation to the concept of participation, but also cultural sustainability and legacy. In my recent article I have analysed the main policy documents for the ECOC programme. By applying Critical Frame Analysis on these documents it became apparent that there is no clear concept and guideline on what participation is, or should be: only some fragmented suggestions on ‘who’ should participate in ‘what’. The answer of the crucial ‘how’ – which would define participation itself – is absent (Nagy 2018).

On the other hand, a similarly problematic structural problem of the programme is the lack of control over the implementation process. Albeit there are monitoring mechanisms in place and evaluation is required from the cities, there are no effective tools in use to influence the actual implementation of the programme from the European Commission’s side. There is the Melina Mercouri Prize, an award that partially intends to fulfil this role but the conditions are rather easy to achieve, and participation or sustainability are not even mentioned among them. Currently, the criteria for the prize are to stay true to the vision, objectives, strategy, programme and budget which have been named in the bid-book; to respect the independence of the artistic team; to keep the European dimension of the programme sufficiently strong; to highlight ECOC as a European Union action in marketing and communication and to have the monitoring and arrangements for the final evaluation taking place*.

In addition to these systemic issues, there are concerns about the implementation of participatory approaches on the local level. To discuss further the issues surrounding participation, I would like to introduce the term ‘local operators’. Local operators are the local stakeholders – for example, small socio-cultural initiatives, activists, NGOs, artists, curators, grass-root organisations and civil associations – people active in the local cultural field. Local operators are rooted in the local cultural scene, therefore they can directly communicate with various groups of civil society and they can ensure the cultural sustainability of the programme.

The main issues raised on the local level in relation to the local operators’ involvement are manifold. Firstly, one of the main problems is instrumentalisation. In qualitative interviews conducted in 14 ECOCs between 2014 and 2018, local operators described their participation as drastically changeable throughout the planning, implementation and evaluation of the programme. While most local operators were involved in the planning period – when their participation is crucial for the success of the bidding – they were often left out from the implementation of the given programme. Therefore, although the application process was based on participation, the final programme lacked participation. In certain cases, local operators’ involvement was only possible until the ECoC board took over. Afterwards, either through application processes or top-down programming strategies, they were left out from the programme, took a minor role or in certain cases they even had to give up their place of practice.

Secondly, a special type of instrumentalisation can be traced in cases when the ECOC programme is used mainly as an urban regeneration tool. This tendency started in the 1990s in the ECOCs, building on the successful, albeit not sustainable, hype of ‘arts-led’ regeneration in US cities. This approach with an emphasis on economic regeneration gained further support within the European Commission with the cultural and creative industries (CCIs) frameworks and funding strategies. Therefore we can witness all four main characteristics of the ‘cultural economic policy’ being implemented within the CCI focused ECOC programmes. These include the establishment of flagship projects, often linked to industrial or cultural heritage sites. Within these flagship projects we often see cultural production infrastructures, such as ateliers and studios; popularization of public-private partnerships and the revival of urban public spaces, but mainly with strong gentrifying tendencies (Kong 2000; García 2004). In this case, local operators’ involvement is only possible if they are also producing marketable products.

Thirdly, another often-quoted problem in relation to the implementation of the ECOC programme is that of festivalisation. Festivalisation occurs when all involvement and programme planning only focuses on the actual ECOC year, without any sustainable impact on the cultural field.

Fourthly, a problem that in recent years has started to be addressed in the ECOC framework is the lack of cultural strategy on the side of the city and municipality. In a case study García described the case of Glasgow in the following way:

“The event organisers failed to establish partnerships and workforce structures that could survive the year and be applied, on a smaller scale, outside a major event-hosting process (…) Culture was used as an instrument for economic regeneration without being supported by a properly developed urban cultural policy. As such, decisions were often made on the basis of potential business returns, media coverage and tourist appeal rather than community development and self-expression” (García 2004: 319-320).

In the last ECOC guideline a criterion – ‘contribution to the long-term cultural strategy’ – was added to the requirements, highlighting the necessity of a cultural strategy for ECOC cities, “which covers the [ECOC] action and includes plans for sustaining the cultural activities beyond the year of the title, to be in place at the time of its application”. In addition, cultural strategies are usually vaguely formulated, so it is rather hard to follow how the ECOC plays a role in them.

Even if cultural strategies are in place, participation is not prioritised in these long-term plans. This can mean that if the programme is not backed-up with regional and national funding structures, all the initiatives and successful programmes initiated or supported during the ECOC programme will be left without cultural and funding strategy. This problem is closely related to the issue of the temporary structure of the organisations. Tommarchi, Hansen and Bianchini listed this as a key challenge for Capital of Culture cities, by noting the ‘cliff-effects’ that can abruptly follow the end of the ECOC year when a programme lacks a follow-up strategy (2018).


As an end note, I would like to reflect on the potential of participatory programming and to offer some recommendations for further development. On the one hand, at the beginning of this article, I have briefed the development of the ECOC programme in relation to the various cultural turns and the diverse interests these turns served, to offer a better understanding of the participatory turn phenomena. On the other hand, I have addressed the approaches that can enable or block the participatory turn within ECOCs on the supranational and local level. From this brief overview it is clearly visible that although participation is required and supported by cultural policies in general, and by ECOC decisions in particular, it still has to overcome some boundaries on both levels. The key lessons to learn are the following:

  • On the systemic level of the programme we have seen that albeit participation is enabled and ‘supported’, there are no clear guidelines for the actual participatory frameworks and no actual focus on participation in monitoring and evaluation. Therefore, participation should be clearly outlined and defined in order to ensure its implementation.
  • On the local level it should be ensured that participation of local operators and civil society is not instrumentalised for any interests, neither for the sake of successful bidding nor for urban regeneration and tourism.
  • On both levels the lack of cultural, social and economic sustainability should be tackled, as the fragmentally implemented and followed cultural strategies do not solve this problem on their own.

Perhaps one point that stakeholders and decision-makers fail to recognise is the positive impact of participation. Although participatory approaches are more time-consuming, they also hold the key to cultural sustainability. To stay with the example of local operators that I used earlier, the continuous involvement of local operators’ and civil society’s participation in planning, implementation and evaluation could ensure that the cultural investments during the ECOC programme are responding to the needs and interests of civil society. In this way, there would be an interest on the side of civil society to stay involved with the projects and programmes initiated in the ECOC years, and they would be motivated to keep up this legacy and sustain the cultural projects, organisations, spaces and events.

Also, here is the right moment to reach back to one of the original aims behind the ECOC programme – democratisation. Maybe now could be the right time to start believing in democratic processes again, with the help of a more widely reclaimed and supported participatory turn.


Biographical note:

Szilvia Nagy is a cultural researcher, project manager and founder of Local Operators’ Platform (LOCOP), a network and research platform critically assessing cultural policies and supra-regional funding strategies in the European Union. Her research focuses on participatory governance and cultural sustainability in relation to cultural policies. Contact and information: locop.project@gmail.com, www.locop.org.



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