“Make culture count in foreign relations”

May 29, 2019

Roberto Vellano of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the incoming president of EUNIC, officially taking on his new role at the General Assembly in Rome on June 13. Here, he talks about his three priorities for the next year, the challenge of Brexit and the changes in Brussels after the elections, as well as the pleasure of constant learning from each other with the EUNIC network.

You have been elected as EUNIC vice president in June 2018. How did your close work with EUNIC in the past year change your perspective on the network and on your own work in the Italian Ministry?

To be sincere, in my professional experiences before 2016, I had no direct experience of working with EUNIC and its clusters and I had quite a vague notion of European cultural diplomacy. When I started to participate in EUNIC meetings I was struck by the engagement and preparation of this group of people, in Brussels and in headquarters. This happened in a moment when European institutions began to work more and more on the issue of cultural external relations. All the conditions were there and I immediately realized EUNIC’s huge potential and that Italy should be more engaged in it.

Do you have a motto for your presidency, or topics that you will be focusing on in the next year?

I believe there are three major aspects we should focus on during 2019 and 2020:

First, the Council of the EU has recently adopted the conclusions on an EU strategic approach to international cultural relations. In this strategy, EUNIC is mentioned several times. It is important that all the members are aware of this and that all the actors involved at national levels – ministries and cultural agencies, no matter if they are members of EUNIC or not – are consistent at all levels with this commitment.

Secondly, there is a need to find a good balance between EUNIC’s role inside and outside the EU. EUNIC is rightly concentrating on developing common projects and joint actions in third countries, thanks also to the new opportunities represented by the European Houses of Culture program. However, the internal dimension deserves equal attention, both in terms of working more closely with European institutions – which is the main job for EUNIC Global in Brussels – and of promoting projects in Member States, showing how important cultural and linguistic diversity is for the Union within its borders.

A third priority could be to ensure that all members of EUNIC feel equally engaged and motivated in implementing our program, no matter whether they have a big or a small network. I believe all members should have a fair representation in the governance of EUNIC, in light also of their lower presence at cluster level.

And a motto for all this could be: Support EUNIC and make culture count in foreign relations!

What are the main challenges you see ahead of EUNIC?

Needless to say, the consequences of Brexit are a matter of concern for all European bodies and institutions and EUNIC is no exception, but I am convinced that if Brexit actually happens we will find the way to preserve a good level of collaboration with the British Council. In addition, the approval of the Joint Guidelines for EUNIC clusters and EU Delegations is a crucial step in order to achieve an effective collaboration on the ground. Then, we need to implement it and find financial resources for projects. A further challenge is advocacy for EUNIC in all EU institutions which soon will be completely renewed. I am referring especially to the new European Parliament and to the Council bodies, starting from culture and audiovisual media where member states’ representatives sometimes don’t know enough about EUNIC and its work.

What do you find personally enriching about your engagement with European collaboration on culture?

The exchange of experiences is fascinating, you find out that a problem we are dealing with nationally is exactly the same that other partners are working on. You learn a lot from comparing different systems and working methods. In this respect, I attach the utmost importance to our calendar of Knowledge Sharing Workshops and to the new Job Shadowing Initiative among members.

What does your presidency mean for your organization, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that oversees also the network of Istituto Italiano di Cultura?

For Italy, cultural diplomacy represents one of the pillars of its foreign policy. I think our engagement in EUNIC is bringing new opportunities to grow and to be present in many areas where we have only a small embassy or, perhaps, a committee of our sister network, Società Dante Alighieri. Besides, it makes our work more visible within our foreign and culture ministries and with our national partners, which is also important for a network that needs to defend and, if possible, increase its place in the Ministry’s budget.  

Why should colleagues working for national institutes of culture also engage with EUNIC?

One added value of working with EUNIC clusters around the world is that the engagement of local partners in cultural projects is usually more profound and that EUNIC projects often have a component of cultural ‘cooperation’ that makes the difference. To promote culture in a way that creates stable and lasting relations is a priority for our network.

Roberto Vellano graduated in 1987 at Turin University in Political Sciences and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the following year. His assignments took him to Maputo, Mozambique, where he was Ambassador from 2012 to 2016, as well as to Madrid, Warsaw, Geneva, and to various positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome. He has been appointed Director for Cultural and Language Promotion in March 2017.

Image: Roberto Vellano in discussion with EUNIC Global Director Gitte Zschoch in Biella, Italy during the Focal Points meeting on 13 May 2019 at the Cittadellarte - Fondazione Pistoletto, copyright EUNIC Global.