Among the enormous quantities of bumf spewed out by the Brussels media spin machine of late was a statement headed "EU celebrates 25th anniversary of European capitals of culture". Now, contain that spurious bonhomie, all of you.
To add, however, to the frisson of excitement, Bulgaria is on the list to have a capital of culture, in 2019. Unlike Italy, it has not yet named a candidate; Italy has three.
What, you plead to know, is a European capital of culture? In the worthy words of the EU, it is the bloc’s "most ambitious and visible cultural project in size and impact," "an opportunity to regenerate cities, to give new vitality to their cultural life, to boost their creativity and to change their image". It is "not about the beauty of a city but the programme of activities it proposes for its year".
Interestingly, participation is not limited to cities in the EU. This year, Istanbul is one, presumably on the grounds of Turkey’s EU candidacy, and to the chagrin of those who grumblingly insist that Turkey is not a European country. Like several other cities that have been cultural capitals, Istanbul is not a national capital.
The project is not without its political minefields. Serbia is on the list for 2020; let us hope that they do not nominate Pristina. Macedonia has a slot in 2022. Even those well-disposed towards the Skopje state probably hope that they are careful about any further plans for statues or renaming things. Perhaps, informally, such issues are avoided by the fact that, for the past couple of years, countries themselves do not have the final say over their cultural capitals – this is decided by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. Perhaps too, the placing of some as-yet non-EU countries on the list is an informal indication of views of their EU prospects, or chances for them resolving deep political problems: Bosnia and Herzegovina is down for 2023, and Albania for 2024.
There is, of course, money involved. Apart from funds from state and local bodies, the European Commission currently chips in 1.5 million euro.
We shall await with interest Bulgaria’s nomination, although I suspect Plovdiv should be the favourite, partly on the basis of the diversity of its heritage (for which contenders appear to score points) and the availability of venues, but also because Sofia may be excluded on the principle "to them that hath shall not be given" and considering that lately, as noted, chosen cities tend not to be capitals – a change from the early days, which started with Athens and went on to include, among others, Paris, Madrid and Lisbon.
The Italian nominees for 2018 are L’Aquila, Matera and Siena; in the past, the city was Florence in 1986, Bologna in 2000 and Genoa in 2004. In other words, Rome has not made it, but then again, according to the European Commission, "the most successful capitals are those which seek to embed the event as part of a long-term strategy and commitment to culture-led development", something which Rome, or another notable absentee Milan, may not necessarily feel that it needs as an innovation.
Again, so the EC says, the average tourism boost to a Cultural Capital is 12 per cent on the year. Prepare for those hysterical "new hope for Bulgarian tourism" headlines now.
We shall meet at this very spot nine years from now, and see how it turns out.