BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - In an effort to create a sense of shared history, the European Union has launched an initiative to promote important sites of culture and heritage across its 27 member states and the continent.
The European Heritage label -- modeled on the U.N. World Heritage program -- brings together dozens of locations that have had a part to play in forging the culture and history of modern Europe.
The label has already been awarded to 64 places, from Poland's Gdansk shipyards, a hotbed of the Solidarity movement that helped bring an end to communism, to the Acropolis in Athens, a relic of ancient Greece and a symbol of democracy.
The European Commission formally signed off on the idea this week, and it will now be expanded across the union, with each member state allowed to nominate two sites for the label each year, although only one, at most, will be chosen.
In its sweep, the initiative seeks to contribute to the political and economic integration of Europe by binding its 4,000-year-old history and culture more tightly together, and building on the European City of Culture program that has been running since the 1980s.
Cypriot Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner in charge of education, culture, multilingualism and youth, believes the initiative will give the European Union's 500 million citizens a better sense of where they have come from.
For young people particularly, she hopes it will be educational and contribute to cultural tourism throughout the bloc, which will in turn have economic benefits.
"There will be new opportunities to learn about our common yet diverse cultural heritage, about the history and the building of the European Union, and about the democratic values and human rights that underpin European integration," she said.
Costing less than 1 million euros ($1.4 million) a year to administer, she said the initiative had a price that was "small compared to the potential educational and tourist benefits."
Other notable sites already awarded the label include the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, the palace of the popes in Avignon, France, and the birthplaces of Italian composers Rossini, Puccini and Verdi.
Switzerland, while not a member of the European Union, has had three sites recognized, including the Hospice of St. Gothard high in the Alps that has been a stopping off and treacherous passage point between north and south Europe for centuries.
Although the label idea was begun by France, Hungary and Spain four years ago, the Commission has only now given its formal backing. Its support should raise the profile of the scheme and make it possible to promote it more widely.
The timing would appear to be right. An online poll conducted by the Commission last May showed that 58 percent of people were unaware there was even a European Heritage label.
At the same time, 89 percent of the 220 polled said the idea would help define a European identity, and 90 percent said it was good that the Commission was backing it.
Editing by Paul Casciato