Letter from Strasbourg

Euro MP and PASOK’s former minister of the Aegean Nikos Sifounakis is one of the few who believe in the European Parliament’s power to improve European life at both the institutional and individual levels. He seems to believe his passionate enthusiasm on improving the conservation and promotion of the cultural heritage will be better respected by the bureaucrats in Brussels than the political elites in Athens. Born in Crete in 1949 and educated as an architect in Italy, Sifounakis has a solid resume in rescuing rural heritage sites. When he served as prefect of the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos from 1983 to 1987, he did a remarkable job of saving ancient olive mills and stone-paved paths from demolition. This week in Strasbourg, Sifounakis will present his report on the protection of the European natural, architectural and cultural heritage in rural and island regions. The general assembly of the European Parliament is expected to approve it as an action plan, which calls on member states to promote the protection and conservation of their cultural heritage and give priority to small traditional communities. «The current trend is to target the most promising manifestations of our cultural heritage, that is to say, the finest monuments, the best conserved old cities and major historical and archaeological sites,» Sifounakis notes in his report. «While their continued conservation is essential, similar attention must also be given to promoting Europe’s rural and island areas, in particular small traditional communities.» What isn’t clear is whether the subtle criticism in his report is directed mainly to past or present Greek authorities. If nothing else, Greece’s remaining wild lands and watersheds are threatened by the same menace as its cities: urban sprawl. «More specifically, the report seeks to pinpoint the challenges arising in connection with this lesser-known aspect of cultural heritage, that is to say, the European cultural heritage of rural and island areas, which require greater protection, giving particular attention to small traditional communities,» he notes in a telling passage in the report. «Almost 90 percent of the territory of enlarged Europe is made up of farmland containing precious wildlife reserves and cultural assets. Despite this, many policies regarding rural areas fail to sufficiently reflect their specific nature and their actual needs,» as well as: «Rapid urban growth has not only economic but also environmental, social and cultural implications, affecting the cultural heritage of rural areas, which remain an important part of our collective European memory and a source of creativity.» Even though Sifounakis does not outright name the country, he is clearly referring to Greece. Today at 5 p.m., the European Parliament will reconvene after the summer break for the first of two plenary sessions in September. Sifounakis and the rest of the 731 Euro deputies will be commuting with an army of aides from their regular offices in Brussels to Strasbourg once a month.  This is the product of a typical EU backroom deal. France insisted that the agreement that chose the Belgian capital as the EU’s home back in 1958 was blocked. The result was that the French got the Parliament’s Strasbourg outpost as a consolation prize. While the European Union’s commissioners are allegedly doing their dirty deeds behind closed doors in Brussels, members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg do their business in full view of the people who voted them in. All of the Parliament’s sessions are held in public and there is a public gallery where people can listen to the debates. Some 455 million people in the 25 EU countries believe the Union and the European Parliament are not as important as they thought when the whole grand idea came into being. I remember a Greek Euro MP once telling me that he asked a class of high-schoolers once if they knew who their Euro deputy was. He was met with silence. Most adults under 30 have only faint memories of a time when a passport was needed to cross Western Europe’s borders. Since then, the benefits of the Union have been taken for granted. And EU benefits do include setting up programs to protect us from ourselves, at least where cultural heritage is concerned. The Sifounakis report is a step in that direction. In the report, Sifounakis asks for a bevy of rules, including the systemic survey of the cultural heritage in rural and island areas, the drafting of a legislative framework to conserve it, funding for the restoration of local monuments and the continuation of traditional farming methods, as well as comprehensive measures for the restoration of traditional communities original architectural configurations, remedying any previous interventions running counter to this purpose. He wants training for professionals involved in the use and management of space, architecture, the restoration of buildings and related activities in how to conserve the specific nature of the heritage while meeting present-day needs. And he wants training and support for craftsmen and suppliers of traditional materials and the use of methods facilitating their reutilization. Today, those craftsmen and suppliers are not Greeks but immigrants from our neighboring Balkan states. They are Albanian stonecutters, Bulgarian and Romanian builders. They have worked for far lower wages than the Greeks yet their expertise has helped transform, even modernize, our country in the last few years. They have helped preserve historic sites and they have helped improve our cities. At the very least, perhaps this new EU incentive will have the extra benefit of helping those who labor so hard to protect our cultural heritage while also improving our land.