Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU will come to an end in December of 2022, at a time when Europe is facing a set of complex challenges: the energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, climate change, the risk of recession, among others. Can nations become closer in difficult times by finding common ground? What does it mean to be a European citizen in the second decade of the twenty-first century?
Jitka Pánek Jurková is the head of Czech Centre Brussels since 2017. Czech Centres strive to promote the country’s reputation abroad and are a core instrument of public diplomacy. With a Ph.D. from Charles University in Prague, Jitka is a diplomacy practitioner and researcher who gained her Master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam. She writes for a number of Czech and international media outlets and is the author of the ‘Jazzman versus the spies: Art as a secret weapon of international politics. In the past, she led the cultural department at the Embassy of Israel in Prague and worked as a dramaturgist for the Bohemian Heritage Fund.
She speaks with Brussels Morning about cultural diplomacy, what European citizenship means, Czech innovation and creativity, her life in Brussels, and more.
You’ve been in Brussels since 2017. Could you tell us about your experience here?
Brussels is a great location when you are interested in the different practices of cultural diplomacy because everyone wants to be present and visible. They want to be represented. There are very important audiences for all the messages related to public and cultural diplomacy. I have a Ph.D. and I’m also a practitioner of this discipline, so Brussels is a real “candy shop” for me in this regard.
I came here to enjoy the diversity of these practices and see what my colleagues from all over the world are doing. And of course, to contribute as much as we can by showing what we have to offer from the Czech Republic.
I’m at the end of my mandate because, after the Czech Presidency, I’m going back to Prague. So this is really kind of me looking back at those five years. My stay was enriched by my daughter being born here. That was a fabulous experience.
You often give talks on cultural diplomacy. What does that entail?
Public diplomacy is many things, but the main goal is to support and sustain the image of your country abroad and to establish and develop quality relations with the public of another country. To cultivate a good image abroad and to establish relations. That’s the ultimate goal but the means are endless. The traditional tools that many would associate with cultural diplomacy are cultural events, and exhibitions, but there are many more.
We often invite stakeholders from Belgium to the Czech Republic. It could be festival organizers, journalists, gallery directors, and so on, to spend a few days in Prague. Bringing people together is very important.
We put them in touch with their counterparts in the Czech Republic so they get to know the Czech context more and get acquainted with what’s going on in their field. If it’s a gallery director, we would bring him to our galleries and to our fine art festivals. And after that, every time there is something exciting – an artistic residency, exchange, an exhibition, anything – the exchange continues on its own. For instance, cultural operators from Cas-co in Leuven who were in Prague in 2019 have now launched an exchange residency between Leuven and Brno.
We function as a gateway to the country, as a knowledge hub, and as a networking partner. Anytime someone here in Belgium would like to get to know more about the Czech society or Czech art scene, we are the ones who provide our insight and give tips on who to talk to.
The director of the Caserne Dossin in Mechelen, Tomas Baum, reached out to us because they were putting together an exhibition on universal human rights. We decided to make the Czech dissident movement during the communist era a part of the story. We put him in touch with his counterpart in the Czech Republic, and we provided several important pieces that explained the Czech context.
There’s a collaboration with the media. The press but we also work with influencers, for instance, bookstagrammers, people who promote literature online. We give them suggestions on Czech literature, and books that have been recently translated. This raises awareness of what’s happening in many domains.
We try to broaden the understanding of the Czech Republic and the easiest way is to provide someone with a firsthand experience. When we bring someone to Prague, it’s because we know that the person will always bring a bit of Prague to Belgium.
Your podcast ‘Jazzman vs. Spies, what is it about? Why was it created?
The confinement period during Covid was long here in Belgium. Social life was constrained and our evenings got somehow unusually free because in the regular season we are busy three, or four nights a week with our events or those organized by our partners. I’ve always felt like an important thing is to educate people, both here and in the Czech Republic, about what cultural diplomacy is.
Why are taxpayers paying people like us to promote the Czech Republic abroad via culture in the largest sense of the world? I decided to use that moment to work on enhancing and promoting the notion of what cultural diplomacy is because people would often have this idea that it’s about a Czech orchestra playing somewhere but the techniques, the tools, and the history are so amazingly interesting. I decided to put it into a format that would shed a light on certain topics and explain them to the Czech audience back home.
The goal was to make it accessible but complex enough. More complex than one interview, more complex than one lecture. But still really accessible. It is a very unusual kind of thing because all our communication normally is with the Belgian audience. That’s what we do. But the podcast was directed back home. It did start a new discussion about the concept, not only with the broadest audiences but also with the media and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We had two large events related to that. I think it was important to just explain it in a more nuanced way, what are we actually doing?
What was the reaction from the Ministry and from the Czech people in general?
I was really glad about the outcome. The audience was much bigger than I had imagined. Initially, I thought, this is a niche topic. I would be happy if it gets, you know, two thousand listeners or something like that. But it was much more popular than that.
It was very valuable for the dialogue within our administration because the podcast was co-produced by the Czech Centers, by Charles University in Prague, and by the Institute of International Relations, which is an advisory institute for the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
So you’ve got academia, practitioners like us, and you’ve got advisory bodies. I think we were successful in bringing the topic one level higher in the hierarchy of importance. And for me, the timing was critical because it was before the negotiations of the Czech presidency. The budget and program had yet to be determined, so it was really important to have a more complex understanding of what cultural diplomacy can do for a country’s image.
What is the meaning of European citizenship for you?
One could say that it’s easy to find differences among European countries. But if you take a step back and look into more fundamental or overarching themes and questions, it’s much easier to find commonalities among European citizens.
In Brussels, we have EUNIC, a network of European cultural institutes and embassies that deal with cultural diplomacy. We have debates about whether it’s more important to communicate within Europe or outside of Europe, together. We have those debates all the time. I think that especially for countries of middle size and for those of smaller size as well, it is very important to have a continuous dialogue within Europe about our values, about what unites us as opposed to what divides us.
For me, the question of European citizenship is identifying our joint strengths by having quality and in-depth dialogue. After some time in Brussels, one might get a bit more skeptical in some regards, but you definitely have to believe in the possibility of such dialogue between European citizens in general and the possibility of finding a major common shared ground. Especially in light of contemporary events. I think there’s so much more that unites us.
Do you think people in the Czech Republic, on average, feel this European citizenship is a reality in 2022?
It’s a good question. I am not an expert on public opinion, especially not in the Czech Republic because that’s not the kind of topic I was involved with these years. I’m more in touch with the perception in Belgium. There were however a few research papers recently that I identified, which were very interesting. Czech people are, overall, not the biggest enthusiasts of large, abstract concepts such as the EU. But if you put it into a wider context, they are no enthusiasts for any type of abstract concept. They are not Euro skeptical more than they would be towards any other international entity.
Czechs, in general, are very much down to earth. They like to feel grounded. But they identify as Europeans. The label that we love to use is that Czechia is the heart of Europe. That is why there is this preference for Czechia to be seen as a part of Central Europe. I think that this really points to the fact that we necessarily see Europe as our home.
Do you feel you’ve had enough support from Prague during these past five years?
Yes. Of course, you can always ask for more. And we do ask for more. I cannot complain about our position. It is very important that the Czech Republic has this structure of Czech Centres, a network of cultural institutes. It’s pretty common in Europe, but it’s not a given. There are many countries that don’t have that.
It has been developed by many other countries, including Germany’s Goethe Institute, and the Polish Cultural Institute, among others. It is a functional model for very good reasons. It allows you to have an organizational culture that is specific enough for cultural diplomacy.
It allows you to have an organizational culture where you can develop tools of cultural diplomacy as you need them with the right amount of flexibility and the right amount of political and strategic awareness from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The model gives you the right amount of independence or semi-independence because you are not dependent on immediate shifts or power. You are in very close contact with the Ministry because we are a contributory organization of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. That’s how it was established. This infrastructure is efficient because we are autonomous yet supported enough in what are doing. It offers a lot of operational flexibility.
I was extremely happy to be here for the Presidency period because there were many fruitful discussions with different ministries and with the government’s office about what are we doing in Brussels, who does what, what are the themes, and what are the priorities. That gave us some extra leverage.
Czech people are known throughout history as great innovators and great creators. Are innovation and creativity blooming these days?
For the whole network of Czech Centres, the main themes for our presidency activities were creativity and innovation. And sustainability because that’s really part of it as well. For these six months, I chose the motto: continuous creativity
I am completely persuaded by the importance of cultural diplomacy, especially for a mid-sized country like the Czech Republic with a very rich cultural heritage. And that has been our key focus in these past few years. Innovation, and long-term creativity, which then lead to the success of innovative industries in our country.
A good example is video games, which is one of the biggest or fastest-growing creative industries. The Czech Republic is drawing on its famous school of animation and tradition of cinematography. In 2019, we had a successful event in Charleroi where there is a festival called Meet and Build, and its focus is video gaming. That year we had a special Czech edition with an exhibition of the 10 biggest, most successful Czech video games. We also had a policy hearing in the European Parliament about regulation for video games.
When the craft of indigo dyeing with block printing (modrotisk) was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, we, together with the embassy, proposed a costume for the Mannekin Pis here in Brussels. It was created by a very contemporary fashion designer. It’s another example of merging the old and the new. The Design Museum in Brussels is now hosting an exhibition of Czech Design organized by Applied Arts University. Examples of indigo dyeing can be seen on display.
What have been the highlights of the Czech Presidency in terms of cultural diplomacy?
For the opening weekend of the presidency, we organized a run together with a Belgian runners magazine. The magazine is named after a very famous Czech runner, Emil Zatopek, who also broke a world record in Brussels in the 1950s. Zatopek would have celebrated his one-hundredth anniversary this year. He’s a very good symbol of resilience, and the run was a fundraiser for Ukraine. The same weekend we unveiled a really beautiful art installation in the streets around Schumann. Twenty-three European artists were commissioned to work on contemporary designs of the European or Czech flag.
At Bozar, there is the Focus on Czechia with multiple film screenings, an event on artificial intelligence, and a concert with works of both contemporary and classical composers. The films take a contemporary cinematographic look at important figures or themes from the past. For instance, there is a new biopic of Václav Havel. Controversial and interesting.
There will be a fashion show at the Gare Maritime where the brightest students of fashion design from the most prestigious schools in Belgium, the Czech Republic, and probably beyond will arrive. The best students’ work will be showcased.
There’s Milena Dopitová’s exhibition at Bozar, Even Odd, which is very important for us too.
Why is it so important for you?
She’s a female sculptor, a contemporary female sculptor, and that was important. We need to bring as many female creators to the forefront because they’re still underrepresented. She works with the themes that I think are pertinent for Brussels in general.
She touches on topics such as empathy, solidarity, and wider social themes. In this exhibition, I found it beautiful how she found a common symbol for Czechia and Belgium, the railroad, and how she used it as a symbol for what connects us as humans. For the exhibition, it was an expert chosen by the National Gallery in Prague together with Bozar, based on our initial suggestion.
What has been done at the Czech Centre in terms of supporting Ukraine?
As you know, at the end of February, Russian aggression toward Ukraine happened. Of course, this is something that our politicians deal with on the political level, but we also really wanted to use part of the symbolic space we have and leverage this theme as well.
In a situation like this it’s very responsible I think to work with another country in the program of your own nation’s branding. Until the end of the year, we are trying to invite as many Ukrainian speakers to our events as we can.
So for our conference on artificial intelligence, there will be one. Also for the well-known Vaclav Havel European dialogues. We invited a Ukrainian artist for the art installation as well. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but the idea is that it’s not always only about you.