The ECoC Initiative
The foundation of what would later become the title “European Capital of Culture” was laid in 1985 by the then Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri. Athens was appointed the first “European City of Culture” in the same year. Since 1999 the programme’s name has been changed to the one we now know and use. The purpose of the title “European Capital of Culture” is to emphasize the diversity of European culture and to draw attention to Europe's different communities with focus simultaneously on our cultural differences and similarities. The aim is to bring economic, political and social benefits both to the cities and countries, and to maintain the EU exchanges and interconnections.
The title "European Capital of Culture" is an instrument to place culture and art as a local and national priority as well as an opportunity to express identity.
How is a city designated as a European Capital of Culture?
Six years before the title-year the selected host member states publish a call for applications, usually through their Ministry of Culture. Cities interested in participating in the competition must submit a proposal for consideration. The submitted applications are reviewed against a set of established criteria during a pre-selection phase by a panel of independent experts in the field of culture. The panel agrees on a short-list of cities, which are then asked to submit more detailed applications. The panel then reconvenes to assess the final applications and recommends one city per host country for the title. The recommended city is then formally designated as European Capital of Culture.
The role of the European Commission is to ensure that the rules established at EU level are respected all along the way.
From designation to implementation…
European Capitals of Culture are formally chosen four years before the actual year. This long period of time is necessary for the planning and preparation of such a complex event. The panel, supported by the European Commission, has a continuing role during these four years in supporting European Capitals of Culture with advice and guidance and taking stock of their preparations. At the end of this monitoring period, the panel will consider whether to recommend that the European Commission pays the Melina Mercouri Prize (currently €1.5m funded from the EU Creative Europe programme).
…to evaluation of the outcomes
Each year the European Commission publishes an evaluation report on the outcomes of the European Capitals of Culture of the previous year. Following the year of the title, an external international evaluator selected by the EU, monitors the implementation of the initiative by the host city and publishes the results within 10-12 months. For the Capitals post-2019, the cities themselves will carry out their own evaluation and send it to the Commission by the end of the year following that of the title.
What has been done so far?
The initiative was developed in 1985 and has, to date, been awarded to more than 50 cities across the European Union.
What are the next steps?
A new framework for the initiative, post-2019, was adopted by the European Parliament and Council in April 2014. It includes the chronological list of member states that can host the title from 2020 until 2033.
This new framework, as amended by a recent Decision of the European Parliament and the Council, makes it possible for a city in a candidate country, in a potential candidate for EU membership or in a European Free Trade Association country which is part to the Agreement on the European Economic Area (so-called EFTA/EEA countries) to hold the title every third year. This will be selected through an open competition, meaning that cities from various countries may compete with each other. The next competition of the kind has just been launched for the 2024 ECoC title Decision.
Cities wishing to take part in future should await the announcement of a competition in their own country, and then complete and submit a bid in response to the call for applications published by the authority in charge of the competition (usually the Ministry of Culture).
What are the most common misconceptions about the European Capital of Culture?
- The European Capital of Culture title is given to cities as a reward for their cultural merits.
The title is awarded after a competition between cities with specially prepared programmes in which their merits and potential are equally involved with their problems and challenges. The winning city is committed to implement most of the programme with which it has won the title.
- The European Capital of Culture is an elitist project whose aim is to show above all excellence in art and culture.
The European Capital of Culture initiative has evolved and changed over the years. It is currently a project with a very strong social dimension, aimed at communities, minorities and attracting citizens into participation. Art and culture are appropriate tools for achieving better integration and improving the social climate in cities. In addition to high-quality content, another goal of the project is attracting the widest range of participants and citizens.
- This is a project funded by the European Commission.
The European Capital of Culture is funded entirely by the city and the host country, with the support of the business. The only European Commission funding that the European capitals can receive is the Melina Mercouri Award and the project grants for which the organizations are applying on an equal footing with everyone else.
- The main objective of the European Capital of Culture is to increase the growth of tourism in the cities.
Many of the European Capitals of Culture cities are already developed tourist centres from before winning the title. The initiative is an opportunity for these cities to expand the reasons why tourists will visit them. Increasing tourism growth is among the main impacts of the initiative, but it is not the most important goal.
- The European Capital of Culture is a funding programme.
For the implementation of the initiative, cities attract local and international partners, but their success requires active two-way interaction between the partners. The implementation of the preliminary programme could not deliver the expected results if the initiative is perceived and treated only as an opportunity for additional funding.
- Twin-European Capitals of Culture compete for the Melina Mercury Prize.
Cities-twinned as European Capitals of Culture in one year, regardless of their number, carry out partnership projects and interact. Each of them can receive the Melina Mercouri Prize. Their success depends on the level of cooperation between them and not on the competition.
"Capitals of Culture – An introductory survey" (October 2017, a paper by Steve Green – Chair of the selection panel for European Capitals of Culture)
Check this video, published by one of the city candidates for the title in Slovenia in 2025, presenting some of the phases and aims characterising the ECoC initiative: