On the 18th. of October, 2016 a historical conference was held in the European Parliament. The voice of circus people has never been heard before with respect this unique art deserves. István Ujhelyi, Hungarian member of the European Parliament – who was the initiator and also the host of the event – wanted to bring closer the European decision-makers and representatives of the traditional and the new generation of circus art to find out together: how we can preserve traditional circus values, how we can assist in the development of new artistic ways and strengthen the cultural cooperation between the circuses and their associated institutions.

“I shall propose the establishment of a quality assurance and accreditation certificate that would rate ensembles on their traditional, cultural, and artistic value, with special attention on how they meet animal wellbeing standards. Let us call this certificate the “Big Top Label”, the Michelin star of circus arts, an independent quality assurance system guaranteeing quality circus art and no maltreatment of animals. I will send an official proposal concerning this issue to the International Organization for Standardization, but I am happy to initiate it individually as well, guided by your professional cooperation of course.” – told by MEP Ujhelyi in 2106. Summary of the conference: HERE.

MEP Ujhelyi announced the so called “Circus Manifesto” in Monte Carlo, on the 22nd of January, 2017. This guideline for European institutions and circus stakeholders was signed by many circus artists, stakeholders, decision-makers and circus fans Read more about the manifesto: HERE

There was a successful workshop on the 31st. of May, 2017, in the European Parliament, about the framework for the Big Top Label with the participation of circus experts and stakeholders.

During 2017, the office of MEP Ujhelyi have had negotiations with the European Commission (DG EAC) about the cooperation and European labeling. It’s a huge result, that the BTL-project became an acknowledged part of the official programmes of the ‘European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018’ (EYCH2018), which means that the European Commission recognized the issue of quality circus art on a high European level.

After many consultations and exchanges of view the final framework of BTL has been announced in Monte Carlo 2018 by the head of Mr. Ujhelyi’s cabinet, Tamás Lajos Szalay. As the person who is responsible for the BigTopLabel-project, Mr. Szalay finalized the rating system with the support and agreements of circus art stakeholders. The Ujhelyi office asked several circus art professionals to join the BTL-Committee and evaulate the reports about the applied circuses.

The first inspections were held between June and August of 2018, done by head of cabinet Mr. Szalay at Cirque Arlette Gruss, Blackpool Tower Circus and Circus Krone. The results were announced on the 28th. of November, in the European Parliament, Brussels in the presence of Commissioner Tibor Navracsics.

During the ceremony, MEP Ujhelyi said that awarding the first BigTopLabels is a worthy finale for 2018 – the very year that marks the 250th anniversary of modern circus. „We must be able to defend our cultural values and artistic traditions while simultaneously fulfilling all the strict contemporary requirements – for instance concerning animal welfare measures. The BigTopLabel system seeks to point out and highlight the good examples which exhibit outstanding quality both from a cultural and humane sentiment” – noted Mr Ujhelyi.

Commissioner Tibor Navracsics said the followings:

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak at this Award Ceremony for the BigTopLabel, this new quality assurance scheme for the Circus sector in Europe. It is a pleasure to celebrate this premiere with you. Given the highly demanding selection process, I would like to congratulate the three laureates of this first edition, representing each a circus that is meeting the highest quality standards in every regard. You set an example for others. You stand for the long circus tradition in Europe. You ensure it relevance for the future. Let me also congratulate Mr. István Ujhelyi, Member of the European Parliament, for his determination to create this “Michelin star of circus arts”, to use his words. I remember very well the conference in the European Parliament in 2016 when he first launched the idea to create this independent quality assurance scheme. Circus art is a very good illustration of the dual nature of culture and cultural activities – on the one hand the intrinsic and artistic value of culture and, on the other hand, the economic value, including their broader contribution to creativity, innovation and social inclusion. I think that the BigTopLabel covers those aspects very well. You know that the circus art is dear to my heart. It is a vivid part of Europe’s cultural heritage with its centuries-long history, in all its forms, from the traditional small family-run companies to the fascinating contemporary circus shows. Therefore, I am also delighted that this important and worthwhile event is taking place during the European Year of Cultural Heritage that we have been celebrating in 2018 very successfully across the continent. To celebrate our shared cultural heritage – both tangible and intangible – we need to reach people, especially young people, in their communities: small villages, towns, cities and capitals all over Europe. Circus and street arts are very successful in this.
This year we have been raising awareness of the many cultural influences that make up our heritage, underlining the link between the past and the future. Again, circus is a good example of combining traditions with innovation, technology and new ways of expression, appealing to the young and to the elders alike. A bridge between centuries and generations. For all these reasons, this Award ceremony has received the label of the European Year of Cultural Heritage.
As a legacy to the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 and in line with your Circus Manifesto, a first overarching study on circus has been launched by the Commission with the objective to gather socio-economic data and to analyse the current situation of Circus in Europe. The results will be available at the beginning of June next year. EU Member States shall benefit from the findings of the study as they will help to enhance cooperation on circus arts, to facilitate research among organisations, academia and artistic companies and to promote intercultural dialogue through circus activities. As there can be no strong policy without proper funding, the European Commission has presented an ambitious proposal for the next Creative Europe – the EU’s funding programme for the cultural and creative sectors. We hope that the European Parliament will support us on that during the legislative negotiations.
The current Creative Europe programme has funded since 2014 a great number of projects in the field of circus arts and street arts worth more than EUR 4 million. On top of that, we have launched a first pilot project to promote the individual mobility of artists and cultural professionals this year. Circus artists will be welcome to participate in this new project, which we intend to conduct during the next three years. Investing in culture is vital for the future of Europe. It brings people from very different backgrounds together, enables them to unite in diversity by recognising shared historical and cultural experience. Through this, I hope people come to realise that there is more that unites us than divides us.

Martin Lacey Jr., representing Circus Krone said the followings at the event:

“Thank you! Firstly my wife Jana Lacey-Krone and myself would like to say a big thank you to Mr. Istvan Ujhelyi MEP for creating the BigTopLabel-project. Thank you to your team and thank you to Mr. Tamás Lajos Szalay for your very thorough checks of Circus Krone. For us and Circus Krone this is a very important and also an emotional day! As now the European Parliament has began to recognize, learn and understand that the circus is a very credible industry, that has existed for over 250 years. Circus Krone itself 114 years. And we celebrate our Circus Krone bau this year 100 years. But most importantly, BigTopLabel establishes there is a difference! A difference between circuses! There are some circuses that create a dark cloud over the beautiful circus world. For far, far long through lack of experience or otherwise, some circuses have had no respect for the way a professional business is run, but also no interest to respect and protect the roots of the circus establishment. However the BigTopLabel protects the professional circus. Circus is truly the only art form in entertainment for the whole family. Twice the number of people who ride, sale, fish or play golf visit German circuses, therefore we are not talking about hundreds of thousands but millions of families and people that visit circuses in Germany. Therefore not only the circus need the protection of the BigTopLabel but also the general public. Visiting families will have the reassurance that the circus has been properly and vigorously inspected by all authorities.
The BigTopLabel will help direct the circus business in a more seious and professional mannor towards the ever changing moden world. For example when one mentions the name circus! It’s often made as a joke. How many times do you hear in politics: ’it’s run like a circus’!? The very basis of the is respect, respect for our animals, respect for our customers, respect for ourselves. So we think the world we live in today can take an example of circus. We respect one another’s religion, culture and race, the circus has so many different people working together to form a team based on respect. We rely on each other to produce an amazing and successful performance that families have witnessed each day every day for the last 250 years! The show must go on. It’s famous saying but a very true saying in our business. We believe the BigTopLabel will bring out the best in each professional circus and authenticity in its business. As for my wife and I, we have undertaken the huge task of running the biggest circus in the world. And we feel relatively young for such a task. Personally and emotionally. The BigTopLabel gives us a feeling of protection. The hard work needed to run a business with our family of employees is recognized by the BTL’s governing bodies. That enables us to give the power that is needed tor un a successful, live circus production. BigTopLabel has given us confidence for our circus and the future of the circus world. BTL, thank you for believing in this project, thank you for bringing us to Brussels. We will support this project by running our business to the highest possible standards. As we say, the show must go on. BigTopLabel most go on! Thank you!”

Second round in 2019:

BigTopLabel prizes were handed over in the European Parliament, for the second time on the 2nd of October, in 2019. This year, another three ensembles, the Finnish Sirkus Finlandia, the Swiss Zirkus Knie and the Hungarian National Circus led by József Richter Jr. received the recognition. Vice-President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala and, at the invitation of the initiator MEP István Ujhelyi, Honorary President of the Circus World Federation, Princess Stéphanie of Monaco was also present at the awarding ceremony at the European Parliament. Prior to the event, István Ujhelyi and Princess Stéphanie of Monaco had a dedicated meeting with the new Commissioner for culture Ms. Mariya Gabriel and they also met President of the European Parliament David Sassoli.

MEP István Ujhelyi’s speach was the followings:

Dear Guests, dear Colleagues, three years ago, at a parliamentary conference here in Brussels, I talked about the need for a European quality assurance system for the circus world and the need to show the difference between good and bad circuses. Many people in the audience shrugged their shoulders, thinking it was only empty words from a politician. I also spoke about the fact that, for over a decade, there had been no comprehensive survey made of the situation of European circuses. I said I would initiate a study of the circus industry with the European Commission. Again, many people shrugged their shoulders, saying nothing would come of it. Well, the European Commission survey is almost complete now, and we are handing over BigTopLabel honors for the second time already. Thank you for being with us; thank you for celebrating exemplary quality and outstanding performance together with us. Ladies and gentlemen, the circus provides millions with quality entertainment and a living for tens of thousands of people. The circus is an integral part of European culture and the European economy and deserves the appropriate attention and recognition. BigTopLabel is just one, but a very important step in safeguarding and strengthening the value that traditional circus art represents. However, it is important for us to take further steps. As a Member of the European Parliament, I consider it essential that more attention be paid to education, so that social circuses promoting social inclusion in the EU receive greater support and that circus education be a part of public education in all Member States. Quality and exemplary performance can be of great help to us in this mission. For this reason, I am asking the circuses that have been awarded the BigTopLabel recognition to set up a dedicated team to help other circuses catch up; a team to strengthen our lobbying power with EU institutions. Naturally, I also count on the help of European Circus Association in this project.
Allow me to thank Her Highness Princess Stéphanie and President Urs Pilz for supporting my ambassadorship for circus art and enabling me, among others, to further promote the outstanding Hungarian circus tradition. I would also like to thank Commissioner Tibor Navracsics for his support, as the outgoing Commissioner was a true friend of the circus world. I trust that we will have similarly good cooperation with the new Commissioner responsible for this field, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel. And, you should know me by now, these are not just empty political words. We will carry on! Thank you for being here, thank you for celebrating with us!”

Policy advisor Bernadett Petri on behalf of current EU Commissioner Tibor Navracsics told the followings:
On behalf of Commissioner Navracsics responsible for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport I would like to say thank you for the invitation for the annual Award Ceremony for the BigTopLabel, the quality assurance scheme for the Circus sector in Europe. I also would like to express the appreciation of the Commissioner to Member of the European Parliament István Ujhelyi for initiating the idea to create this independent quality assurance scheme and for his commitment to promote circus art, which is a vivid part of Europe’s cultural heritage. Circus culture has an integral part of European culture and economy. Besides its artistic value, it has an important economic impact, including the broader contribution to creativity, innovation and social inclusion. The indicators of the BigTopLabel cover these aspects very well and we would like to encourage the organisers to create a community among certified circuses and to turn the BigTop Label into a real quality guide.
Last year the award ceremony of the BigTopLabel took place during the European Year of Cultural Heritage that we have been celebrating very successfully across the continent. This year we are working on the creation of the legacy for the European Year of Cultural Heritage. As a part of it, a first-ever overarching study combined with a survey on circus has been launched by the Commission with the objective of gathering socio-economic data and analyzing the current situation of Circus in Europe. The study is now in finalization phase and the results will be presented very soon. The European Commission will keep funding the contemporary circus activities through different programmes and actions such as the Creative Europe programme, the EU’s funding programme for the cultural and creative sectors. We would like to encourage the circus sector to keep participating in the policy making process under the new
European Commission as well and help our work for a shared cultural heritage by underlining the link between the past and the future and bridging between centuries and generations. Finally yet importantly, let me convey the congratulations of Commissioner Navracsics to the three laureates of this annual ceremony. It is a great pleasure that one of the BigTopLabel nominated circuses is Hungarian this year. Thank you for your high quality work that can contribute that the modern circus culture get the recognition it deserves due to its distinguished place in European culture. Thank you very much for your attention.”

Third round in 2022:

BigTopLabel certifications, considered the “Michelin-star recognition” of circus art, were distributed for the third time this year in the European Parliament in Brussels. The recognition can be given to European circuses that meet the requirements of a checklist of strict European standards drawn up by a professional committee, specially created for this purpose during an on-site inspection carried out by an independent person delegated by the European Parliament. The mandatory requirements are strict; in addition to checking the living and working conditions of the artists and technical employees, the companies must meet high standards, for example in the areas of ​​animal welfare, transparency, law-abiding behavior, high artistic value, or even in ​​meeting the broadest needs of the public. In recent years, six circuses have received this recognition, including the German Krone, the Swiss Knie, the French Arlette Gruss and the British Blackpool Tower Circus. This year, three new applicants met the European standards: the Bulgarian Circus Balkanski, the Swedish Brazil Jack and the German Circus Roncalli.

The European recognition, created with the professional support of the European Circus Association and the world federation Fédération Mondiale du Cirque (FMC), was founded and is supported to this day by Hungarian MEP István Ujhelyi. He is the vice-chairman of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee; he has been a dedicated supporter of European circus art for many years, and was previously elected an honorary ambassador of circus art by the FMC.

At the award ceremony held in the European Parliament on October 12, Ujhelyi spoke, among other things, about how the economic crisis now poses new serious difficulties for the cultural sector, including the circus arts, after the grave damages caused by the Covid-pandemic. That is why the art sector needs the most effective and reliable support possible, and the presentation of exemplary quality must be an even more important priority. At the Brussels event, Ujhelyi called for the BTL-awarded circuses to come together and, with the hoped-for support of the European Commission, create a platform by jointly organizing workshops and professional programs that could help and support those circus troupes that do not necessarily meet the requirements of the highest European standards.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, also responsible for Horizon Europe, Creative Europe and other related European programs, was also present and delivered a speech at the event. Her speech was the followings:

“It is an honour for me to be here today, at the BigTopLabel awards ceremony, and I would like to warmly thank MEP Ujhelyi for inviting me.

The Circus is a beautiful art form, and it deserves all our support. It is actually a good epitome of the European Union, a group of diverse people banding together to do something bigger than themselves, connecting communities, one might even say, united in diversity?

Circus sets a valid example to society. No matter where you come from, no matter what talent you have developed, if you put enough work behind it, if you learn from a community that has put on a great show for centuries, there is a place for you to shine. To be under the spotlight. To have your self-discipline and humanity admired and respected.  The performance of these virtues has made the circus what it is today, an integral part of our culture that we should recognise and support.

And this is precisely why we are here today. 

MEP Ujhelyi put it brilliantly when he called the BigTopLabel with “the Michelin-star of circus arts”. Indeed, the BigTopLabel recognises excellence. It recognises that these performances deserve to travel. It recognises that the circus community deserve our support. The label guarantees a quality threshold. Animal welfare and safety. Social responsibility. The promotion of the wholesome values of this beautiful tradition. Not to mention that it promotes the renewal of this art. And this applies to all types of circuses, from traditional to modern, for those with animal acts or without. The BigTopLabel is a reference for the circus world. I hope it becomes a reference outside it too.  And looking at the great names that already got the label, it is without a doubt well on its way. They are all circuses with a long tradition, constantly re-inventing themselves, always open to innovation. That is the same ambition that drives the three circuses we honour today. The Circus Balkanski from Bulgaria and Cirkus Brazil Jack from Sweden are family-run companies with a long tradition where the art has been meeting excellence from generation to generation -. Circus Roncalli from Germany has successfully paved the way for innovation in new sceneries since the mid 90’s, bringing acrobatic poetry to the circus ring.

Behind the scenes, these three circuses work hard to meet the highest standards. In the ring, their performances show the highest artistic value. They truly enchant us with their magic and poetry. They are great examples of why I am proud to be a part of supporting this community. Through projects funded by our programmes, through mobility opportunities, or through insight, building an evidence base that supports your needs when you advocate and organize for your community. 

There are three topics that I would like to develop briefly, which are the European fundings, the support to artistic mobility, and the specific data needed so that our policies serve your community. Let me start with funding. Between 2014 and 2020, our Creative Europe programme supported many projects on the circus arts with a total of 7 million euros.  A majority of our applications come from Nouveau Cirque or from professional circus schools, but I think traditional and family-owned circus should consider applying more often as well. In fact, I am convinced that the circus has a lot to give, and I would like to encourage you all to apply to more projects, not only through the Creative Europe programme, but also through Erasmus+. I believe that circus has real potential supporting inclusive education, fostering virtues all of us need to succeed, from perseverance to teamwork. 

Second, mobility. And here, I have exciting news. building on the success of the I-Portunus pilot project, and thanks to the crucial support from the European Parliament, I have just launched “Culture Moves Europe” two days ago.  This is a new initiative under the Creative Europe Programme promoting the individual mobility of artists and cultural professionals. Circus artists are welcome to participate in this new programme, especially as this community has such a big tradition of cultural transfers and connecting communities. 

Third, data. As we were celebrating the 250th anniversary of the circus and the European Year of Cultural Heritage, in 2018, we launched an overarching study on the circus arts in Europe. I know that a lot of you contributed to that study, and I thank you for that. We are very proud of the results. We now have a solid evidence base on many aspects of circus life, from the socio-economic profile of the sector to the educational needs of children whose parents work in circus arts. This is essential for public authorities, from the EU to the local level, to support you the best we can.

Dear friends, as Stéphanie de Monaco, a friend of the circus community, rightly said: “Circus is what real life should be like. It’s sincerity, feeling, emotions. All real. There are no lies in circus.” Indeed, the circus teaches us to commit. To work. To help one another. So let me express my warmest congratulations to all those we celebrate today. Your contribution to our rich cultural tapestry is essential. 

Thank you for impressing us, for leaving is in awe, for making us smile. Thank you for your attention, and I wish you an excellent ceremony.”

The BigTopLabel program continues, the dialogue with professional organizations and experts about the possible expansion and further development of the quality assurance system is ongoing.

Fourth round in 2023:

The BigTopLabel awards were presented for the fourth time in December 2023, at the European Parliament building in Brussels. Once again, the event was hosted by Sándor Zsíros, the local correspondent for Euronews, with MEP István Ujhelyi delivering the opening speech. The initiator of the BTL program announced, among other things, that he will not run for re-election as a Member of the European Parliament in the coming year. However, this does not signify the cessation of the BigTopLabel project. On the contrary, he mentioned that they plan to expand the scope of examined circuses, starting with winter circuses.

During the event, three outstanding circus companies were awarded: Louisa and Kerry Raluy representing Circo Raluy Legacy from Spain, Edit Richter as one of the leaders of the Hungarian Richter Flórián Circus, and the first and only British BTL circus led by Martin Burton, Zippos.

The main patron of the award ceremony was Iliana Ivanova, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, and Youth. However, due to health reasons, she couldn’t personally attend the ceremony, so her chief of staff greeted the awardees and attendees on her behalf.

Markus Schulte delivered the following speech at the parliamentary event:

“Dear Mr Ujhelyi, Honourable Members of the European Parliament, Dear friends,

Let me first of all give you the warmest regards from my Commissioner, Commissioner Iliana Ivanova. She cannot be here today and she asked to address you on her behalf.

It is a pleasure to be with you today on the occasion of this fourth BigTopLabel Awards Ceremony. Commissioner Iliana Ivanova has asked me to be here with you on her behalf. The BigTopLabel is a great example of European cooperation. Where there is excellence, we should share it. When someone does it better, we shine a light on their craft, we work together and learn. This is why we are here today. To shine a spotlight on what deserves to be highlighted. So, let me take this opportunity to congratulate the laureates of this fourth edition, Circo Raluy Legacy, Richter Flórián Cirkusz and Zippos Circus.  

Each of you elevates your art at a new level. You are setting an example, you are keeping our rich European circus traditions alive, and you bring joy to millions of people across Europe and the world. For centuries, the circus has been a force in connecting people across language and cultures. This art contributed to developing ties and fostering exchanges, creating and circulating our common European cultural heritage. And it did so leaving nobody behind. After all, inclusion has long been a fundamental principle for the circus. This event tonight recognises this work, the ingenuity of your answers to today’s challenges. Circuses have real impact in European people’ lives. Your organisations deserve our gratitude and our continued support. For this we have the European Theatre Initiative under Creative Europe. 

First, the initiative put together a comprehensive study on working conditions. Especially after the pandemic, we needed to listen to performers, to know what the sector needed. Second, it set up regular European Theatre Fora, sparking an important dialogue with policy-makers. Third, it provided dedicated support through Perform Europe. 

These grants were created thinking especially of small organisations – in dance, theatre, or the circus. They empower innovative practitioners, performers, and artists to find solutions to the challenges of the sector, from tackling the environmental transition to showing us all the importance of social commitment. On this matter, I am delighted to announce that on Friday, we will open the Perform Europe 2023 open calls. We are putting forward 2.1 million euro to support at least 35 partnerships. 

I can only encourage each of you to seize this opportunity. Just as I encourage you to continue to find opportunities in the programme’s other actions. From cooperation and network calls to Culture Moves Europe, our mobility scheme, these opportunities are there for you. We do not need to look very far to see the results of these opportunities. Look for example at the excellent work of Circostrada, a Creative Europe network of contemporary circus and outdoor arts professionals. These networks provide invaluable support, solutions, and can sometimes even be invaluable in helping small organisations with funding, through the cascading grant system. 

The opportunities are there. The creativity and entrepreneurship is also there. These are key ingredients for success. I look forward to continuing our fruitful dialogue with the Circus art sectors, and to hear news about your work. Congratulations again to the laureates. 

Thank you.”

to be continued… 🙂