2000 – 2019
The rebirth of the European Cultural Centre
At the close of the 1990s, the Centre experienced a profound crisis. The management appointed in 1992 lost the confidence of the political authorities, particularly the Canton, which withdrew its financial support, and its main collaborators. It also lost its premises, as the City of Geneva, the owner of Villa Moynier, sought to undertake its complete renovation. Amidst these turbulent times, Michael Schneider, a business lawyer, took over as acting Chair even though the Centre was under consideration for dissolution.
In this exceptionally challenging context, Professor Dusan Sidjanski, the founder and former Director of the Department of Political Science at the University of Geneva, firmly opposed the closure of the Centre during the years 2000-2002. He emphasized the European heritage it had represented since the Hague Congress. His efforts garnered support from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Geneva, Professor Charles Méla, the new Prime Minister of Portugal, José Manuel Barroso, and the Union of European Federalists. Dusan Sidjanski was elected Chair in 2003. He displayed great energy and launched new activities, aided by the Latsis Foundation, which provided essential logistical support by offering its premises and part of its secretariat.
In 2004, Professor Sidjanski also became a special advisor to the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.
This strengthened the Centre’s ability to make its voice heard by the European Union’s authorities.
New activities were developed, including the “Hands on” (“Main à la Pâte”) initiative in 2002, the revival of Intercultural Dialogue in 2004, with a meeting in Geneva and a major colloquium in Lisbon. Additionally, a new series of talks on Europe was inaugurated in 2005 at the Aula of the University of Geneva by José Manuel Barroso, where he presented his vision of the European Union and its future.
In 2008, Professor Charles Méla, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Geneva and Director (until 2013) of the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Cologny, took over as Chair of the Centre, while Professor Sidjanski became Chair and acting Chair until Charles Méla stepped down from the management of the Bodmer Foundation.
In November 2014, José Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission, and Micheline Calmy-Rey, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and former President of the Swiss Confederation, agreed to serve as Honorary Chairs of the Centre, alongside Professor Sidjanski.
Activities (2000 – 2019)
Talks/Panel debates on Europe
The Centre’s series of talks and panel debates on Europe and the future of the European Union was inaugurated in the Aula of the University of Geneva in 2005 by José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. These conferences and debates were organised with the support of the Directorate for European Affairs (formerly the Integration Office) of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and in close collaboration with the Global Studies Institute (formerly the European Institute) and the Centre for European Legal Studies of the University of Geneva, as well as with the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
European Federation and Europe of the Regions according to Denis de Rougemont
A discussion group convened at the initiative of the Centre in April 2012 at the Château de Coppet to brainstorm on the topic of federalism and the future of the European Union. Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the Director General of the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), Jean-Claude Thébault, were present at the meeting. The participants found the discussion to be enriching, prompting the Centre to embark on a longer-term project in this area.
Building upon the initial lines of thought outlined in Coppet, the Centre kicked off a two-fold research project from 2013 onwards, thanks to support from various private sponsors. The project focused on the federal future of the European Union and the role of the Regions in a future Federation, with the aim to updating the thinking of Denis de Rougemont.
The work on these two themes involved interviews with leading figures in the field of academia, politics, and economics, including Professor Jean-Louis Quermonne, former Governor of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet, and essayist Joël de Rosnay. The key areas of reflection encompassed the federalisation of the euro zone, seen as the core of the future Federation, enhancing the democratic functioning of the European Union, defining the role of the European Commission, addressing Europe’s position in the global landscape, addressing challenges in foreign and security policy, ensuring fundamental rights, considering the role of regions and the idea of a Senate of the Regions, and identifying key provisions that could be included in a basic Constitutional Charter.
The ultimate goal was to propose a set of recommendations on these different points, which would then be disseminated more widely, with the overarching idea of contributing to the debate on the evolution of the European Union.
Russia and European Union
The Centre aims to foster a more constructive dialogue between the European Union and Russia, recognising that Russia shares cultural ties with Europe, even if it doesn’t seek membership of the Union. Professor Sidjanski has consistently advocated this idea for several years. He actively participated in a colloquium organized by the Carnegie Foundation and BEPA on this subject along with the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, in May 2012 at the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels. He argued that without Russia as a key partner, achieving a robust Eastern Partnership with the three Caucasian countries of Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova would remain illusory.
Despite the challenges posed by the crisis in Ukraine and the policy of sanctions against Russia, a preparatory meeting in the form of a closed seminar took place in June 2014 in Geneva. During this gathering, an action plan was discussed and developed for a future EU-Russia colloquium, which was set to be moderated by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the Permanent Secretary of the French Academy.
Representatives from the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) to the Presidency of the Commission, including Eric Peters, and the Consul General of Russia in Geneva, Yuri Gloukhov, participated in the introductory part of the meeting.
Among the active participants in this select group were Georges Nivat, Honorary Professor at the University of Geneva and a leading expert on Russia, and Professor Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, Director of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University.
The participants emphasized the need for independent reflection on Russia-EU relations, a goal the Centre is striving to achieve. They concluded that the ensuing colloquium should focus on highlighting the underlying elements of the relationship between the two partners, drawing lessons from both positive and negative experiences. The aim was to identify the political conditions and instruments required to revitalize relations, which had been strained by the Ukrainian crisis. Ultimately, they intended to formulate concrete proposals for the period 2014-2019, corresponding to a new leadership in the European Union (new Parliament, new Commission, new President of the European Council).
Beyond Russia, the colloquium could also provide the EU with a better understanding of the Eurasian Union project, enabling a clearer definition of prospects for cooperation with this new entity.
Following the tradition of “Intercultural Dialogue” initiated by Denis de Rougemont in Geneva in 1961 and in Basel in 1964 (Europe-World Conference), the Centre organised two international meetings on this theme in 2004. One took place in Geneva in January, in cooperation with the University of Geneva (Faculty of Arts) and the Latsis Foundation, while the other was held in Lisbon in April at the Gulbenkian Foundation, with the support of the Latsis and Luso-American Development Foundations and under the patronage of Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso. As a former student of Denis de Rougemont, he opened the session with a stirring tribute in his honour. Distinguished presentations were made by Professor of Philosophy of Law Alexis Keller on the Geneva Agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, of which he was one of the instigators. Additionally, Hélène Ahrweiler, former Rector of the Académie de Paris, discussed the theme of education and peace, and European Commissioner Viviane Reding talked about the role of the European Union in international education, particularly through the Erasmus Mundus programme. Europe’s contribution to intercultural dialogue was addressed by Professors Dusan Sidjanski and Fernando Gil (from the University of Lisbon), while Professor Umberto Gori (University of Florence) highlighted the cultural challenges posed by globalisation.
The central theme of various presentations was the pluralistic essence of our intrinsically diverse European culture, notably those of Professors Charles Méla and Alain de Libera (University of Geneva and École pratique des Hautes Études de Paris). Professor Maurice-Ruben Hayoun (University of Geneva) contributed his reflections on Jewish identity and European culture, while the writer Abdelwahab Meddeb spoke about the divisions in contemporary Islam.
The most significant contributions at the Geneva and Lisbon meetings were compiled in the book “Intercultural Dialogue at the Dawn of the 21st Century: A Tribute to Denis de Rougemont” published by Bruylant (Brussels) in 2007 as part of the collection of the European Cultural Centre.
Through its Chair, Charles Méla, the Centre also actively participated in several events organized by the Martin Bodmer Foundation. In particular, the Centre was involved in the exhibition “Orient – Occident, Spiritual Roots of Europe” in 2009 (proceedings published in 2014), “Solzhenitsyn, the courage to write” in the presence of the writer’s wife in 2011, and “Divine Alexandria” in 2014, organized along with a scientific symposium on “Barbarian wisdom” (27-30 August). The symposium, funded by the International Latsis Foundation, explored the relationship between the Greek and non-Greek (barbarian, including Christian) worlds in the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman period, examining the interest of the Greeks in the Barbarians, Egyptians, Persians, Chaldeans, Jews, and Indians, as well as their philosophies. The cultural landscape of the Mediterranean and the East was profoundly transformed, leading to the transfer of knowledge to Baghdad in the 10th century, Cordoba and Toledo in the 12th century, and Florence in the 15th century. The Centre also participated twice in the “Orient – Occident Meetings” held at Château Mercier in Sierre, and also took part in an exhibition in Paris at the Miró Hall of UNESCO (from 15 to 25 November 2010) featuring 57 photographs by Frédéric Möri on “Orient-Occident: Spiritual Roots of Europe.” This was followed by a roundtable discussion in Room IV as part of the celebration of World Philosophy Day (2010, International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures).
"Hands on", Promoting Science Education in Europe
Promoting European education remains a crucial objective for the European Centre for Culture. In 1999, during the Latsis Foundation Awards, Professor Sidjanski met Georges Charpak, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1992), who shared an innovative method he had developed with another Nobel laureate in Physics (1988), Leon Lederman, called “Hands on” (“La Main à la Pâte”).
This playful and experimental approach aims to introduce 4-5 year olds to the scientific process and reasoning, fostering curiosity and teaching them to engage in respectful dialogue with others through rational and convincing arguments. Beyond its scientific aspect, the method also serves as a tool for learning democratic debate and social integration. In classrooms where “Hands on” was implemented, a significant reduction in violence among pupils was observed.
Based on his initial interactions with Georges Charpak and his colleagues like Yves Quéré and Pierre Léna (from the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of France), Professor Sidjanski organized a colloquium in 2002 at the European Centre for Culture, led by Georges Charpak and Yves Quéré. The event brought together around twenty teachers and education policymakers from French-speaking cantons in Switzerland. The experiment rapidly expanded through a partnership with the Sciences-Cité platform at the University of Geneva. Unfortunately, the introduction of the method into school curricula faced administrative obstacles, compounded by the fragmented education policies at the cantonal level in Switzerland, which hindered its wider adoption.
At the European level, Professor Sidjanski arranged a meeting in Paris in 2005 between Georges Charpak and President Barroso to highlight the significance of “Hands on”. Subsequently, the EU provided 1.75 million in funding through the “Pollen” project, which connected twelve science incubator cities. In 2010, the “Fibonacci” project, named after the 13th-century mathematician from Pisa, succeeded “Pollen.” Professor Sidjanski presented the transition from “Hands on” to “Pollen” in September 2010 at a conference titled “European Cultural Heritage and the Role of Science and Mathematics” held at the University of Bayreuth. He also paid tribute to Georges Charpak at a ceremony held on 1 March 2011 at the Academy of Sciences of the Institut de France in Paris.
Pluralism and Education in Central and South Eastern Europe
In December 2012, during a meeting in Berlin, the Centre made the decision to participate in the “EU-36” project, which focuses on reflecting on the future enlargements of the European Union. This project is led by the Central European University in Budapest, along with its Centre for EU Enlargement Studies headed by Professor Péter Balázs. In April 2013, the Centre organized a colloquium in Geneva on the theme “Democracy, Institutions, and Identity” as part of the EU-36 initiative, in collaboration with the European Institute of the University. The colloquium featured a round table discussion introduced by Boris Tadic, former President of Serbia, and several Ambassadors from the countries concerned (Albania, Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia) took part in the event. Prior to the colloquium, the Centre also arranged a public lecture by Professor Balázs at the University of Geneva, focusing on the future of the European Union by 2020.
The work produced by the EU-36 group was published in June 2014 by the Central European University under the title “A European Union with 36 Members? Perspectives and Risks.” This publication includes contributions from Professor Dusan Sidanski, Honorary President of the Centre, and Dr. François Saint-Ouen, Secretary General, as well as from Professor Nicolas Levrat and Dr. Frédéric Esposito from the European Institute of the University of Geneva.
In parallel, the Centre aimed to initiate action that goes beyond the current formal criteria for a country to join the European Union (known as the Copenhagen criteria). The Centre concluded that beyond meeting the formal requirements such as respecting the rule of law and conducting free elections, it is crucial to promote the practical application of democratic ideals, pluralism, and the rejection of nationalism. The Centre emphasized the significant role of education, particularly in how history is taught to students, in achieving these objectives.
For this reason, the Centre has nurtured the “Pluralism and Education” project, which seeks to promote a conception of history, civics, and pluralism that aligns with European values and firmly opposes nationalism. This project will be implemented in six countries: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, and Serbia. The Centre plans to develop this initiative through various partnerships, particularly with organisations in the countries involved.
Geneva Hub for Democracy
Following on from its research on the European Federation and on pluralism, in September 2015 the Centre inaugurated an activity focusing on the challenges of democracy and security and on the idea of democratic culture, most of which took place at the Maison de la Paix in Geneva. This project, called “Geneva Hub for Democracy”, was designed to develop in close coordination with, in particular, three other institutions based at the Maison de la Paix and supported by the Swiss Confederation: the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and Foraus.