Openingstoespraak van Prinses Laurentien tijdens de uitreiking van de ECF Princess Margriet Award 2012 te Brussel

19 maart 2012

De toespraak is uitgesproken in het Engels.

Your Royal Highnesses, Vice-President  Mrs Kroes, Excellencies,
distinguished Laureates and friends,

We are delighted that you are all with us today for 4th ECF Princess Margriet Award celebration.  We celebrate European artists and thinkers who share their personal insights about Europe and European societies. In particular, we celebrate two 'beacons of cultural excellence' whose work stimulates conversations with our pasts and fuels our thinking for the future. Laureates Charles Esche and John Akomfrah help visualise dreams, nightmares, realities, existence, past and future. You offer insights into the lives of people who make up our societies - citizens in general, and specifically women, prostitutes, minorities and migrants … You share your knowledge, push boundaries and generate images of who we are and who we might become.

There are many visions for Europe. But for people to connect and feel its relevance and added value, we need more than visions - we need to visualize where we want to go and be. We need to tell Europe's stories, like you, our laureates and artists do. This requires more discipline and boldness than stating a vision: you actually need to be able to describe with real imagery what it is that you see and want. Instead of using abstract notions we need to be able to see, touch and feel what Europe is about. And there is so much we can see, touch and feel about Europe!

Take 'cultural diversity', which is mere policy jargon to an average European. But he can taste the tapas from Spain and  the smorebrod in Denmark; admire  the art of Hockney, Richter and Degas; sail the canals of Bruges, Venice and Amsterdam; join a hackathon of IT wiz kids in Valencia and Berlin.

Or take 'peace and stability', which is at the core of European integration. It may also seem like an abstract concept. But isn't peace and stability about taking the young people to the graves of our past? Getting a sense of what they think and feel when walking through Auschwitz, and the trenches of Verdun; looking down on the beaches of Normandy and travelling through the Balkans?

Visualizing Europe is about understanding what it was, what it is and what we want it to be. We should ask ourselves, is the European story about grey suits lined up for 'the family photo' inside equally grey buildings, about procedures and summits? Or do we want it to be about connected people, about students moving around and people getting married across borders and boundaries? Isn't Europe about young entrepreneurs innovating and exploiting their talents, and about the elderly finding their way to the internet to connect with their grandchildren?

To put it in the words of Alfred Montapert, author of The Supreme Philosophy of Man: "To accomplish great things we must first dream and visualize, then plan, believe and act."  If we want to visualize the future, which is by definition unknown, we need to dare to freely question the status quo. That's what you, our laureates, do in your own, very distinct, ways; by sharing your personal perspectives on society; by analysing people and their motivations and by bringing together such different perspectives.

We cannot question the status quo without engaging in some kind of dialogue - be it with ourselves or with others. And vice versa: "interesting conversations often involve some form of questioning", to quote the van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. This is particularly the case now, at a time where we all feel we live in a time of flux and transition - be in the way we interact with each other; how we use our natural resources, or in our perspectives on freedom and our role in the world.

We as people, and societies, are constantly in flux, which is almost by definition unsettling. Why? Because change challenges notions of ourselves: it forces us to look in the mirror. Who are we? What interests and values do we share? Europe of today, let alone that of tomorrow and the day after, will differ from yesterday's. So to keep moving ahead, we need to keep on visualising where we want to be.

Culture offers a space for such engagement; a space of connection and intersection; of harmony and at the same time disruption. It provides a shared space where both differences and commonalities are visualised, to trigger dialogue. Culture brings fresh and unexpected perspectives to seemingly 'non-cultural' issues, from global warming to the economic downturn; from interaction between people of different backgrounds to the feat that such interaction may have a negative impact on one's own life...

Artists may not offer solutions to such issues, but their insights might stimulate new and fresh thinking, about our challenges and possible solutions.

We need to seek the right balance between the search for a shared visions and visualisations and continuously questioning of the status quo. And this balance is precisely what can help keep citizens engaged. This is of course crucial for a healthy development of Europe.

That most of us - especially young people - take Europe for granted should be seen as a major success. But the Europe we have today is still young and will not last if we do not continue to build, invest in and visualize our future. This is where I see a critical role for culture and arts. This is also where the roots of the  European Cultural Foundation lie: almost 60 years ago, ECF's founders envisaged cultural expression to be a unifying force for Europe. Today there is much need, room and scope for such cultural storytelling, as we live in a world that is all about visual images.

Now is the time to have the courage to visualize and speak up. Europe is its citizens, and its citizens are Europe. It's an open door, but our future is too important to merely delegate to grey suits and summits. Our future is a responsibility we share. And there we have the choice between "should share" and "want to share"…..Or, as Charles Esche once said, the question is not who we should be, but who we want to be.

I would like to congratulate the laureates once again. And on behalf of everyone at the European Cultural Foundation, I wish you all a delightful evening, with many inspiring and memorable encounters and conversations.

Thank you.