London, 11 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission is to provide special funding for millennium celebrations in nine European "cities of culture" amid a growing public demand for a festival that is more ambitious than anything so far envisaged.
The plan is controversial because it allocates money to four cities -- among them Prague and Cracow -- that are in non-EU countries.
Commission officials told the "European" newspaper that the nine cities are Avignon (France), Bergen (Norway), Bologna (Italy) Brussels (Belgium), Helsinki (Finland), Prague (Czech Republic), Cracow (Poland), Reykjavik (Iceland) and Santiago de Compostela (Spain).
The choice of cities in four countries not in the EU -- Czech Republic, Poland, Norway and Iceland -- has caused some irritation, particularly in Britain, which plans to host the largest millennium celebrations in Europe but has been told by Brussels not to expect any EU funding.
Asked why the Commission is giving money to non-EU countries, a spokesman said it was symbolic that some of these cities do not belong to member countries of the EU, or are in countries set to join, because, "Europe wants to show that its doors are open."
For the EU itself, the year 2000 will mark its own 50th anniversary. The union was founded in May, 1950, as the European Coal and Steel Community. Brussels is expected to mark the birthday by seeking a special summit of EU leaders. It will also stage a series of festivities "of a European nature" throughout the year 2000.
European information commissioner Marcelino Oreja has said the EU should use the symbolism of the new millennium to emphasize the achievements and objectives of closer European integration.
In choosing the nine "cities of culture," the Commission is expanding a tradition which began with Athens in 1985. A different city has been chosen each year since then. The current city of culture is Copenhagen. Each of the nine have begun preparations for the celebrations. Most will benefit as some of the exhibits will become permanent features of their urban landscapes.
Each city plans to emphasize its own theme.
Prague will have as its theme "Europe's cultural heritage." Frantisek Malina, of the Czech ministry of culture, said: "In 2000 we want to remember Prague as a special historical monument, from the gothic to the baroque, as a bridge between the past and contemporary Europe."
Bologna's theme will be "information and communications." It has invited writer Umberto Eco to teach a special science course in the year 2000 at a new communications center being built (Bologna is the only European city offering citizens free e-mail and access to the Internet).
Ambitious plans to mark the millennium are also under way in London, Rome and Hannover. London plans a vast dome-like structure (at a cost of $750 million) on derelict land near the River Thames; Rome expects millions of pilgrims for a historic papal mass, while Hannover will stage Expo 2000, one of the biggest exhibitions ever.
The "European" newspaper says a special committee under commissioner Oreja has been working on new political and practical guidelines for the millennium. In a document likely to be adopted by EU leaders next year, Oreja says the millennium is likely to provoke reflections on the long-term development of European societies.
He says: "One characteristic of the future that the Union would want to highlight and strengthen is the much closer contact and understanding between ordinary citizens across political and cultural borders." He said: "It is as much our own EU birthday, Europe's birthday, as the dawn of a new era."