Whilst the will to conduct cultural activities at European level was apparent as early as the 1970s, it was not until 1992 that culture was officially given a place in European integration through the Maastricht Treaty. Today, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union reaffirms that "The Union shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore" (Article 167).
To create a real European cultural area, the Union is called upon to promote cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, to support and complement their activities in the following areas:
- dissemination of the culture and history of European peoples;
- conservation of cultural heritage of European significance;
- non-commercial cultural exchanges;
- artistic, literary and audiovisual creation;
- cooperation with third countries and the competent international organisations.
For ten years, the Commission supported cultural cooperation via three experimental programmes in this sector (Kaléïdoscope, Ariane and Raphaël), covering the performing, plastic and visual arts, heritage and books. The European Community has also supported the Member States' initiative to designate a “European City of Culture” each year since 1985.
In 2000, the Commission adopted the “Culture 2000” framework programme, a new approach to cultural action. The aim of this programme was to create a common cultural area by promoting cultural dialogue, the creation and dissemination of culture and the mobility of artists and their works, European cultural heritage, new forms of cultural expression and the socio-economic role of culture. In 2007, the “Culture” programme succeeded the “Culture 2000” framework programme. The new programme covers the period 2007-13. It takes over the objectives of the “Culture 2000” framework programme, but also includes the collection and dissemination of information in the field of cultural cooperation.
Apart from the "Culture” programme, cultural cooperation in Europe is also promoted by specific activities funded by other European programmes. This applies in particular to activities in the context of economic, research, education, training and regional development aid policies that also promote cultural cooperation. This cooperation has a broad base, as most of the programmes are open to the member countries of the European Economic Area and the candidate countries, as well as third countries and international organisations.