No European to receive the EU’s cultural prizes

By Andreas Pacher | 22 April 2017

To quote this document: Andreas Pacher, “No European to receive the EU’s cultural prizes”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 22 April 2017,, displayed on 02 June 2023

The EU’s cultural policy is characterized by a structural oxymoron: The EU pursues European identity-building via a national framework. While the locus of EU cultural policies is delegated onto co-opted national organizations, the main share of successful identity-building discourse is arrogated by the EU. It is the eternal dialectic between Member States and supranational interests that leads to this institutional conundrum. The EU Prize for Literature serves as an illustration

No ‘European’ has ever received the EU Prize for Literature. Instead, the winners are always classified as specific nationals of Member States – as Slovenians, Portuguese, Finnish, Romanians. It manifests a typical “narration of Europe in national terms” (Antonsich, 2008).

Moreover, the awardees are always picked by national juries of their own state rather than by supranational EU institutions. As with the other cultural prizes, the EU merely provides funding and an overarching framework, while the actual selection processes are delegated to private organizations.

With its cultural policy, the EU explicitly pursues the aim of building a European identity. The innate complexity within the concept of identity is only surpassed by the confusing institutional structures behind the EU’s cultural prizes.

In case of the EU Prize for Literature, the national juries who pick their own countries’ awardees are themselves selected by a consortium of three umbrella organizations – namely the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), the European Writers' Council, and the Federation of European Publishers. These three, in turn, consist of an array of national organizations from all the EU’s member states and beyond. There are 12 or 13 winners each year. Each participating country – which include states other than EU members, namely Iceland, Norway, as well as EU candidates such as Albania or Serbia – gets to be represented once over a three-year cycle. The three stakeholder organizations are not always completely distinct from each other. For example, both the Bulgarian and the Austrian Book Associations are members of two of the EU-wide umbrella organizations that are responsible for selecting the national juries. Moreover, the EIBF, one of the umbrella organizations, include groups from the US, Russia, China, South Africa and New Zealand.

Psychological Consequences

There is one problem with this institutional setting. Scientists of evolutionary psychology have long demonstrated that human beings (and some animals) exhibit an innate craving for a distinct status which sets them apart from their co-species (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001; Zizzo, 2002). Honors and prizes satisfy this deeply ingrained desire (Frey, 2006). In grand solemnity, the laureates are propelled to the center of ceremonious attention, they shake hands with official representatives and hear praising words about their works. One psychological result is the emergence of the emotion of gratitude, which is directed towards the benefactor from whom the honor was received. And gratitude nurtures relationships (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006), gives rise to a feeling of social attachment, to a will to enact reciprocity, and, finally, to loyalty.

Now if the locus of selection procedures can be found not in supranational, but rather in national institutions, then the benefactor is not European, but a co-national. One can therefore assume that it is the national organization to which gratitude and loyalty is addressed. This is the irony of creating a European identity via national institutions.

The Clash of Antagonistic Indifferences

The EU Prize for Literature perfectly embodies the EU’s official rhetoric of ‘United in Diversity’ which is as ambiguous as it gets (Lähdesmäki, 2012). As the scholar Jason Dittmer wrote, “European cultural policy is, even in the best of times, a struggle to reconcile tensions between national and European scales of identity, between universalist and particular formulations of Europe” (Dittmer, 2012, p. 123).

It is the antagonism between supranational (or post-national) and national ambitions that creates such intricate settings into which nonparticipating organizations, including from the U.S., China or even South Africa, absurdly become sucked in. The friction is particularly fierce because of what is at stake: Cultural policies ultimately shape identities (Singh, 2010; Sassatelli, 2009; Minnaert, 2014).

Legal Conundrum

The whole cultural policy of the EU operates in categories that are not covered by the legal basis enshrined in the EU treaties. For example, the cultural prizes are called ‘actions’. These ‘actions’ are subsumed under the Creative Europe ‘programme’ managed by an agency under the supervision of the European Commission. Not Member States are the parties to these ‘actions’, but rather ‘participating states’ for the institutional (and political) reasons stated above. Neither ‘actions’ nor ‘programme’ nor ‘participating states’ are legal categories. Moreover, while each cultural prize is labelled to be a EU one, they are in fact organized by private foundations which often do not illuminate how selection procedures take place. The way winners are selected, and by whom exactly other than ominous ‘expert panels’, is never really transparent. (As a contrast: the Sakharov Prize – which is not under the Creative Europe framework, but a prize of the European Parliament – exhibits a clear step-by-step diagram that explains how the winners are chosen.)

The following table lists the prizes under the framework of Creative Europe in the chronological order of the year they were established, featuring the private organizations in charge, and the selection procedures. It demonstrates the EU’s incremental and somewhat unsystematic approach to cultural policy.



Organized by

Selection procedure

EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture


Fundació Mies van der Rohe; Architects Council of Europe

Independent expert juries* assessing proposals from the Fundació’s partner institutions.

EU Prize for Cultural Heritage


Europa Nostra

Independent expert juries*; one public choice award through online poll.

European Border Breaker Awards


Eurosonic Noorderslag; European Broadcasting Union

Unknown regarding nine prizes (“on the basis of data” of various institutions); one prize via online poll.

EU Prize for Literature


European and International Booksellers Federation; European Writers' Council; Federation of European Publishers

National juries selected* by the three organizations involved.





* The way jury members are appointed is not public.

The reason why the EU’s cultural and identity policies spawn such extra-legal complexities is based on the eternal dialectic inherent to the EU. It is the antagonistic clash between two mutual indifferences, namely the supranational institutions’ indifference toward the defensively nationalist sentiments of the Member States on the one hand, and the Member States’ fear of an “end of national cultures” (Bonet & Négrier, 2011) which makes them, in turn, indifferent towards the EU’s ‘post-nation-building efforts’.

A Typical Quota System for ‘European Added Value’

Ever since the EU acquired its first legal competence to coordinate cultural policies in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, it has always followed an incremental approach in cultural policies. That was so precisely as an active response to the ‘supranational indifference’ encountered from the side of Member States, who, naturally, demanded unanimity for all actions within this policy domain. The EU thus always had to accommodate the defensive stances of those seeking to safeguard their national interests.

The result is that the EU follows the classification of artists along nationalities; the need to give each ‘participating state’ its ‘equal’ share; the optics that ‘European added value’ to each work of literature – the main criterion to assess artistic value within the EU’s cultural framework – is ‘equally’ distributed among all Member States. This ‘equality’, as often in the EU, is of course a numeric equality according to which each sovereign Member State obtains the same quantum of winners after the same interval of time. Just compare this political numerology with the yearlong quarrel about the composition of judges in the EU’s General Court (which was ‘solved’ in 2016 with much “useless spending”), or with the shrewdly calculated formula of “Number of Commissioners = Number of Member States”.

National institutions, but Europeanized discourses

As stated above, the recipients’ emotional responses are likely to be channeled towards the private national organizations. Nevertheless, it is the EU which receives the largest share of identity-building success.

For, despite the institutional and legal conundrum, it is the EU that is at the center of discourses. Each cultural prize gains its prestige by including the label ‘European’ into its name. The national institutions that are co-opted to actually organize the prize remain unknown to the public. This “Europeanization of discourses” (Lähdesmäki, 2012) is the main success that the EU shrewdly acquires through its cultural policy.

While the awardees may be aware of the decisive role of national organizations, the rest of the 500 million-big audience – the actual targets of the cultural policy’s identity-building efforts – is enticed to believe that it was the EU which was really able to honor European artists and writers.


So far there is no genuine, supranational EU prize in the realm of culture – one which would award actual ‘European’ rather than a bunch of national winners each year to accommodate Member States’ desires to receive their quota of policy outputs. The current system devised to create a European identity relies on national institutional venues. Classifying an artist not as ‘European’, but rather as a specific national, seems natural because it is commonly accepted today that identity is constructed along nationalities.

The EU, however, has a supranational, if not post-national tendency to transcend national sentiments. This motion that flows away from the Member States’ narrow interests is the contemporary locus of “national indifference” (Zahra, 2010). The Member States react to this indifference by clinging to their sovereign rights which are safeguarded in the Council. They, in turn, exhibit ‘supranational indifference’, to which the European Commission reacts with an incremental approach. In the cultural realm, this dialectic dynamic spawns absurd institutional arrangements that are legally questionable at best.

Moreover, the institutional setting of the cultural prizes may ironically foster the awardees’ loyalty to national institutions. However, the EU is the one which gains prestige and which successfully Europeanizes the discourses in cultural policies.

In the end, these shady outcomes do some honor to the official rhetoric of ‘United in Diversity’. While the EU stresses the ‘united’, the member states emphasize the ‘diversity’. The actual practices simply implement the slogan’s antagonistic ambiguity to its utmost limit.


Anon., n.d. Creative Europe. [Online]
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Anon., n.d. EU Prize for Literature. [Online]
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Bartlett, M. Y. & DeSteno, D., 2006. Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior. Psychological Science, pp. 319-325.

Bonet, L. & Négrier, E., 2011. The end(s) of national cultures? Cultural policy in the face of diversity. International Journal of Cultural Policy, pp. 574-589,

Dittmer, J., 2012. Towards new (graphic) narratives of Europe. International Journal of Cultural Policy, pp. 119-138,

Frey, B. S., 2006. Giving and Receiving Awards. Perspectives on Psychological Science, pp. 377-388,

Henrich, J. & Gil-White, F., 2001. The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, pp. 165-196,

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