Jonathan Mills: Exciting times for Europe can inspire the arts

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The Independent Online

As an Australian, brought up in one of Britain's former colonies, I grew up with a view of Europe as a place of ancient, stable and unchanging institutions, and had been unaware of the recent pace of constitutional and cultural change in contemporary Europe; notably in Scotland with devolution and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, but more widely throughout Europe itself.

Embarking on my journey to Edinburgh to become director of one of Europe's oldest and finest cultural organisations, I have been hugely inspired by the open-spirited debate about the future of the European Union; a future that is being robustly contested and shaped as much from a geopolitical perspective as from a cultural point of view. In programming my second Festival I wanted to consider what Europe is today.

The Edinburgh International Festival was founded back in 1947, in the aftermath of a devastating war, as an optimistic expression of what Europe could become. It owes its origins to an urgent imperative to rebuild a sense of community in a continent which had torn itself apart; to restore faith and to heal the heartache of shattered lives through music, opera, drama and dance.

In the early 21st century, Europe is a very different place. Recently the European community expanded to encompass 27 countries from Estonia to Cyprus, with a combined pop- ulation of some 500 million people. Political borders have been redrawn in every direction one cares to look. These borders are not just geographic but, more significantly, represent a profound shift of economic, social and cultural identity and opportunity.

I have been impressed by the European Union as a huge political effort, involving a formidable degree of trust and goodwill. I am also struck by the simultaneous forces of expansion and fragmentation currently working within it.

The last 20 years has seen Czechoslovakia split in two, the Baltic States emerge, the Balkans torn apart by war, the developing of strong regional forces in countries such as Spain, and most recently Kosovo's self-declaration as an independent state.

Culture does not exist in a vacuum, but represents an expression of the ideals and ambitions of a civilisation in its totality.

This is a not a time for self-limiting arts organisations, but a time for open societies, open places and open prospects. Arts organisations, and particularly festivals, should not be constrained by nostalgic or parochial considerations. The only way forward is to be genuinely ambitious and innovative, and to seek to make intelligent and appropriate responses to developments in the world beyond the arts.

These are exciting times in which to live in Europe; times which demand a commitment to our sense of community. And times in which the arts can play an important role in helping to define exactly where and how those communities might be found.

Jonathan Mills is director of the Edinburgh International Festival. This is an extract from a speech at the festival's launch