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Heritage sites represent the past and future of our common European culture and identity. However, many of them are under serious threat: climate change and environmental degradation put our cultural heritage at risk.
Especially in the Mediterranean countries, numerous fires, floods, erosions, and pollution have already caused irreparable damage over the past decades. But this can and must be avoided.
Therefore, not least as a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, I am fighting for a stronger and more coherent EU approach to improving the protection and funding of our European cultural heritage.
Relevant facts and figures are well-known, and they shouldn’t be neglected.
According to the recent IPCC report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the Mediterranean region is a climate-risk hotspot, and as such, one of the most vulnerable areas of our planet, facing accelerating risks because of climate change.
Moreover, as research by the University of Kiel showed back in 2018, UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in low-lying coastal areas of the Mediterranean are increasingly jeopardised by coastal erosion due to sea-level rise and storm surges. More than 40 of them suffer from coastal erosion already today.
The Acropolis, the Venetian Lagoon, the Delos archaeological site, the Old City of Dubrovnik, Gorham's Cave Complex, Knights’ Fortifications around Malta’s harbours, and Ventotene – all these places, situated on the Mediterranean coast, have played a significant role in the cultural, societal and political history of Europe and symbolise our common past.
They all are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites or European Heritage Label Sites and have lasted for centuries if not millennia. We must do everything we can to defend, preserve and promote them.
In addition to climate change and environmental degradation, the COVID-19 crisis has put an enormous strain on heritage sites.
Amongst other cultural venues, heritage sites were among the first to close due to lockdown measures and among the last to reopen. During the lockdown, many cultural heritage sites were left without supervision and without proper maintenance, leading to additional damages.
The pandemic also reminded us of the immense economical meaning of the cultural heritage sector: It employs over 300,000 citizens, another 7.8 million jobs are indirectly linked to it, and more than 40% of tourism – which accounts for 10.3% of the EU’s GDP – is connected to cultural offers, including heritage sites.
In a nutshell: Cultural heritage sites are fundamental to our common European history, identity and society. They create millions of jobs, and they contribute significantly to our economy. So what can we do to save them?
Raising awareness and increasing public pressure is crucial – because only then, will political action follow.
Therefore, in September 2020, the European Parliament in its Resolution on the Cultural Recovery of Europe highlighted “the important added value of historical and cultural tourism” and asked the European Commission and the EU Member States to “establish an integrated policy in order to support the revival of this sector”.
The concrete demands include launching “an annual European cultural and heritage value creation programme that reflects European cultural diversity” and that “structural funds include, as much as possible, cultural preservation”.
I was involved in drafting this Resolution on behalf of the LEFT group in the European Parliament and was happy to see a broad consensus among the negotiators across political groups. I expect from the Commission and the Member States that they take the Parliament’s demands seriously and put them into practice.
Together with my colleagues from the Cultural Creators Friendship Group (CCFG), I have taken further initiatives. The CCFG is an informal coalition of currently 28 Members of the European Parliament from 6 political groups and 14 different countries, which I co-founded in February 2020 and serve as a Board member.
In the context of post-pandemic recovery, together we fought for a 2% earmarking of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) for culture – across the EU and in each single Member State.
Unfortunately, not only does this goal remain unachieved, but also the data on cultural support were distorted due to certain countries presenting for example the greening of cultural infrastructure as a recovery investment into culture.
The Commission and all EU Member States should take their responsibility more seriously and have the importance of cultural heritage sites reflected in their RRF spending.
Taking a broader look at EU initiatives, there is some potential for cultural heritage sites in the New European Bauhaus (NEB).
Together with my colleagues, I have tabled several amendments to improve the original draft report in this regard. For example, as the LEFT group, we want the NEB to be linked to the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which would open up new opportunities to combat climate change in favour of heritage sites.
With the CCFG, we highlighted the role the NEB should play in the context of the green transition and cultural recovery.
I believe that we need a new European renaissance. We need to invest more into culture because our culture of today – which reflects who we are as a society – will be our heritage of tomorrow.
That is why I demand the European Commission focus more on culture and our cultural heritage.
The Commission should set up a special fund to finance works protecting the heritage sites on the Mediterranean coast from the damages of climate change and environmental degradation, advised by a group of heritage experts proposing solutions, implemented by restoration professionals and in close collaboration with our civil society.
The Member States must support an increased EU budget for this purpose. There is simply no time to waste.
Alexis Georgoulis is a Greek Member of the European Parliament who belongs to The Left group and sits on the committee on culture and education.