What to do with the European Capitals of Culture programme: plenty of potential for true co-creation

Cities across Europe are preparing their applications in the hopes of becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2030. One of the EU’s larger cultural programmes is looking for new candidates and with good reason. A winning city can count on lots of support for its cultural and heritage sector, in theory. But do the ambitions of the programme always work out in practice? And what does the future have in store?

First of all, what does the programme entail? The European Capital of Culture programme is an initiative by the EU aimed at highlighting the cultural diversity, heritage and richness of different European cities. Every year, multiple cities from different EU countries are designated as European Capitals of Culture. These cities are given the opportunity to showcase their cultural heritage, arts, and creativity through a year-long program of events, festivals, exhibitions, and performances. The initiative started out in 1985, when Melina Mercouri, Greece’s Minister of Culture, and her French counterpart Jack Lang came up with the idea of designating an annual City of Culture.

The programme is more than an honorary title or just an excuse to have a ‘cultural’ party. The social and economic development in the chosen cities is a key point of the programme. This should be done by boosting tourism, promoting cultural exchange, and enhancing the cities’ international visibility is important as well. Cultural institutions, artists, and local communities should be encouraged to create a vibrant cultural scene and leave a lasting legacy.

The European Capitals of Culture 2023 are Timișoara (top left), Eleusis (bottom left), and Veszprém (right). Image: Canva & right image Carole Raddato/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The programme started out with the election of Athens (1985) and other well-known capital cities such as Paris (1989), Madrid (1992) and Stockholm (1998). At the start of the 21st century, we can see a big change in the programme, as for the first time, multiple cities were elected, and smaller, and internationally lesser-known cities were honoured with the title: think of Patras, Greece (2006), Pécs, Hungary (2010), Umeå, Sweden (2014). This year’s capitals Veszprém (Hungary), Timișoara (Romania), and Eleusis (Greece) fit that description as well.

The funding for organising such a year comes from a variety of sources. For example, Veszprém’s bid is funded 90 per cent by the Hungarian government, 5 per cent by local municipalities and 5 per cent by EU funds to a total of €175 million.

Lessons from Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden, poster It Giet Oan (Leeuwarden, European Capital of Culture in 2018). Image: Michiel Verbeek/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The change in approach by electing smaller, less well-known cities to give their culture and heritage a boost, is a noble aspiration and an interesting approach for a European-wide programme. However, it is by no means a guarantee for success. In the city of Leeuwarden in the north of the Netherlands, they know this all too well. In an opinion article for IETM, Jeffrey Meulman shows how the joy of winning the bid for European Capital of Culture 2018, soon turned into a deception for many people involved.

The initiative aimed to be a bottom-up project, leaving the direction of what activities should be organised to an independent body that supported local cultural and heritage workers. However, Meulman who regularly speaks to cities that are or have made an attempt to become a Cultural Capital, notices a trend.

“First of all, the bid book processes are surrounded by a pool of consultants for whom advising candidate cities is their livelihood: they move through Europe at rates of around 2000 euros per day. That has nothing to do with idealism.” However, most of the time these projects are based on their idealism and originality, which is often provided by young people, the makers and cultural (heritage) workers, reckons Meulman. The bottom-up, community-based approach – much like the Faro convention – is the most effective to get makers, and heritage workers involved in a successful way.


But once the bid is won, the problems begin remembers Meulman: “As soon as the loot is in, the governors step in to rattle themselves on the chest and the idealists from the first hour disappear to the second plan.” The project turned out to be a breeding ground for internal conflict: ideals such as bottom-up organizing and social cohesion give way to conflicts of interest and hard play.

The focus in Leeuwarden shifted towards city marketing and economic gains, side-lining the core values of connecting through culture and heritage. Meulman refers to an interview with Architect Nynke Rixt Jukema, one of the young people initiating the project in the first phases. “We had great ideals when we started, but when money came, people became arrogant. The creativity was zero, but like birds of prey, they picked up on the plans. There was no money for the performers, the people who really had to do it”, she said.

The fact that many ideas were imposed from above, ignoring the bottom-up approach championed in the bid for Leeuwarden, struck her the most. “That’s not what Cultural Capital is for! What does that have to do with the quality of Fryslân (the province of Frisia with a distinct culture and heritage within the Netherlands, edt.)? What is the connection with our culture or landscape? Cultural Capital will soon be nothing more than a festival with events for which people can buy tickets.”

Plenty of positives

The programme is not just about culture but intends to give a social and economic boost as well, by attracting tourists for example, as seen in England. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Does that mean the European Capital of Culture programme is a failure? Of course not reckons CULT, the Committee on Culture and Education of the European Commission, which is responsible for the programme. Because make no mistake: the programme is still relevant for Europe, culture and heritage. In a discussion about the future of the programme, stakeholders and others involved with the programme reckoned the programme absolutely does have a future in highlighting the role of culture in regional and local development.

In a recent exchange of views with stakeholders of European Capital of Culture 2023 Veszprém, there is plenty of interest in the programme from all sorts of angles given 542 initiated projects and 3000 events since the start of the whole process in 2020.

However, more visibility on an international level is desirable and necessary reckon stakeholders. The same goes for the transfer of knowledge between past, present and future Capitals. Most importantly: European funding for winning cities should be improved. Funding should be made available quicker, and sooner. Whether that helps prevent problems encountered such as in Leeuwarden, but especially the focus on the European dimension and transfer and sharing of knowledge could certainly prove to be vital to successfully continue the programme.


At the end of the day, there is a lot of potential to make the European Capital of Culture programme a well-known and prolific concept in Europe. However, examples such as Leeuwarden and the comments from stakeholders in the CULT meetings show that there are plenty of things that can be improved.

By highlighting the weaknesses of the programme, we certainly don’t intend to be sour or negative. The mistakes actually show the strength and potential of this kind of programme, especially for cultural heritage. By promoting and sticking to a local-focused and bottom-up approach – a Faro convention approach if you will – to organise activities during a Capital year, a community can showcase their culture and heritage in an excellent way, while connecting it to a European dimension as well.

However, that means you have to trust and allocate resources to the people who are actually doing the work on the ground. The young professionals, the heritage and cultural workers. Those who know their cities, regions and cultural landscapes the best, simply because they are from there.

Because in these trying times, it is important that people see that large bodies such as the EU, governments and municipalities, do care about them, their endeavours, their own culture, history and heritage. One can only achieve that by truly showing these people that you care and take them seriously, by truly sticking to the ‘co’ in co-creation.