UK Politics

Euro MPs back creation of 'European heritage label'

Blue plaque on show
Image caption Blue heritage plaques are already a common sight in the UK

Euro MPs have given their backing to the creation of a so-called "European Heritage Label" for sites of European historic or cultural interest. But the very question of "European culture" is proving controversial for some.

Since the late 19th century, historic sites in London and other UK cities have been marked by a simple blue plaque.

Similar schemes have also been introduced in other cities around the world, such as Paris and New York.

Then in 2010 the European Commission announced plans for an EU-wide scheme known as the European Heritage Label.

This built on an intergovernmental initiative launched by 18 member states in 2006.

After negotiations between all 27 EU governments, the EU-wide scheme has now been approved by MEPs in Strasbourg. But only after a heated debate.

Gdansk shipyard

The new scheme will begin in 2013. However unlike similar schemes the criteria for being awarded a heritage label will not be purely architectural qualities or historic beauty but - controversially - "on the basis of their European symbolic value".

Promoting the scheme during the debate with MEPs, Education and Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said it would bring citizens closer to the EU.

"It will help people learn about our common, yet diverse, history and culture," she told a late night sitting of the European Parliament.

Every two years, member states will be able to propose up to two candidate sites, of which one will be selected.

Decisions over which sites will be eligible for the label will be taken by an independent committee of experts, although responsibility for managing and promoting the sites will remain with member states.

A number of sites are already in the running to be formally awarded the label, having been involved in the previous intergovernmental scheme.

These include the Gdansk shipyards in Poland, where the Solidarity movement which helped trigger the end of the Cold War was born.

They also include the French home of Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the EU.

Despite warm words from Commissioner Vassiliou, the proposals came in for criticism from Eurosceptic members of the European Parliament.

Speaking during the Strasbourg debate, the UK Independence Party's Gerard Batten said it was a "vain and crass project" designed to make the EU seem more relevant.

"It's a crackpot idea… desperate propaganda," he went on say.

Criticism of the project was echoed by Nikki Sinclaire, a former Ukip MEP who now sits as a non-attached member of the European Parliament.

She queried what was meant by a common European heritage: "I come from a country that has been free for a thousand years; a country that stood up against fascism and communism. That is something we cannot all share because we had different versions of that."

Ms Sinclaire then offered her opinion on what kind of site should receive a heritage label.

"Maybe we should have Auschwitz as the centre of European heritage because that's a symbol of what happened to the last country that tried to unify the European countries by force."

However the majority of MEPs speaking in the debate broadly welcomed the proposal.

Mary Honeyball, the culture spokesperson for the British Labour group of Euro MPs, turned towards her Eurosceptic colleagues and remarked "we do have a shared European heritage".

Meanwhile Marie Sanchez-Schmid, a French deputy from the centre-right EPP group commented that "the EU has always been political but it has not been cultural, [the heritage label] will help develop a European culture".

The proposal was passed by MEPs at their daily voting session and will now go to the Council of Ministers for formal approval.

When national ministers held an earlier vote on the proposal, in May, the UK representative abstained.