For much of the British media, 2014 began with a panic about the opening of the UK’s borders to people from Romania and Bulgaria. It remains to be seen whether more of them will come here than the Britons who have used the EU’s freedom of movement rules to settle abroad. In 2005, according to the British Government, there were 13.1 million Britons living in abroad, including 677,000 resident in Spain alone.
This story of attraction and fear was put into context for me by an invitation to contribute to a seminar about international cultural exchange. It was organized by Pro Helvetia’s Warsaw office, which has played a valuable role in normalising artistic relations across the former Iron Curtain since 1990. Within days of the Berlin Wall being breached, the Swiss Federal Government voted to support the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe, and cultural investment was a part of that assistance package from the start. Much was achieved by Pro Helvetia in the following decades, often in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, but by 2013 it was felt that special initiatives were no longer needed. And so the programmes run from Sarajevo and Warsaw were brought to an end.
Warsaw today feels much like any other modern, prosperous European capital (it certainly had the best Christmas lights I’ve seen for years) though elsewhere in Poland the legacy of decades of totalitarianism, communism and foreign occupation are still evident. The same is true of most of Eastern Europe, where the capital cities have often outpaced their nations in Westernisation and foreign investment. But 25 years is not a long time to heal such deep and ancient scars. It doesn’t help though when, for largely discreditable reasons, the strong and comfortable pick at the scabs.
As part of the activities organised by Pro Helvetia’s fantastic Warsaw team, I was asked to reflect on the idea of cultural exchange between nations. The result was an essay that drew on the experience of their programme to think more widely about how and why such friendship can be in everyone’s interest. The essay was published to mark the closing seminar, and it can be downloaded below.