Before Free-Trade Negotiations Begin, “Cultural Exception” Already Off Limits

The cultural exception sparked heated debate in the European Parliament. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/horiavarlan

The cultural exception sparked heated debate in the European Parliament.
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/horiavarlan

Friction between EU member-states, starring France, led up to the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on June 17 before negotiations for the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) officially began. Long awaited, the free-trade agreement would boost European and American economies and cement their roles as leaders in the world economy.  The week leading up to the summit, during which the European Commission intended to draft an agreement before beginning discussions with the United States, was marked by conflict over the “cultural exception” that grew into larger criticisms of the European Union.

With France taking the lead, the idea of cultural exception has been a part of past major free trade agreements. By removing the audiovisual sector from free trade, European cinema has managed to compete with the Hollywood giants. France is the poster child for protection of the “culture” sector. The French domestic film, television, and audiovisual industries benefit from subsidies funded by taxing those who profit from films (producers, distributors, cinema owners, television and cable channels, and internet providers), and quotas that demand 40% of programs to be French and 60% to be European.

Famous names in cinema, including Costa-Gavras, Bérénice Béjo, Daniele Luchetti, Radu Mihaileanu and Dariusz Jabłoński, arrived at a hearing in Strasbourg last week to testify in front of the European Parliament to persuade EU ministers to create a mandate of exception for the audiovisual sector. France took the lead in the culturalexception movement on grounds that the domestic film, television, and audiovisual industries are about more than making money – they go beyond commercial value to protect European culture.

Before their appearance at the European Parliament, a petition to leave out the audiovisual sector made its way around Europe. Initiated by Belgian filmmaker brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (“The Kid with a Bike”) in late April, the petition named “The Cultural Exception is Not Negotiable” raised over 6,400 signatures of artists, filmmakers, writers, and other professionals, including big American names like David Lynch and Harvey Weinstein. Steven Spielberg, as jury president at the Cannes Film Festival, also expressed support for the movement at the closing ceremony.

At the hearing in Strasbourg, French actress Bérénice Béjo (The Artist) read from Wim Wenders’ letter that likened losing the cultural exception to “burning books, closing our museums, cutting our thumbs, sacrificing our firstborn, rebuilding the Berlin Wall.” Ministers of culture from 13 other countries followed France’s lead. However, none went as far as French President François Hollande, who threatened that he would veto the trade agreement at the G8 summit if the European Commission would not remove the audiovisual sector. To the annoyance of the U.K. and Germany, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that excludes the audiovisual and cinematographic services from the negotiating table with an overwhelming majority.

Arguments over the cultural exception supported by the French government escalated to what the French Socialist Party called “scandalous and dangerous” assaults. Speaking to the International Herald Tribune, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso claimed that the French insistence on the cultural exception “is part of the anti-globalization program that I consider totally reactionary.” Barroso said that cultures can be protected without having to block themselves from others. Maintaining a Cosmopolitan perspective, he stated that defenders of the cultural exception “do not understand the benefits that bring along globalization to broaden our perspectives and have a feeling of belonging to the same humanity.”

The EC chief’s comments struck a nerve in France, and the responses of those in government were not far off the mark. The power of the European bureaucracy over individual nations has grown over the past few years after the financial crisis, and both the right and the left have taken turns flaring up in response. French newspaper Le Monde accused Barroso of being too pro-American, speculating that he is merely bracing himself for a bid for Secretary General of the UN or a job in NATO after 2014. Leftist Development Minister Arnaud Montebourg shot back saying that “The EU is paralyzed. It does not respond to people’s aspirations in the industrial, economic, or budgetary fields, and in the end it provides a cause to all the anti-European parties Mr. Barroso is the fuel of the National Front, that’s the truth.” Right-wing politician Marine Le Pen and Hollande also made heated remarks toward Barroso’s accusation.

The next day, the EC President responded “It would be good if some politicians understood that they will not get very far attacking Europe and trying to turn it into a scapegoat for their problems.” The European project has been fighting off criticisms quite frequently lately as the European economy is falling. However, only 18 months remain for the EU and the US to make a trade pact until political turnover in the EU. The problem with France and other European nations writing up their list of protected industries is that the U.S. will have a bargaining advantage in the negotiations. Such a track could spur a spiral of red lines and exclusions, in which case 18 months may not be enough time for both sides to make difficult decisions.

Officials worry that such a track could wear down the agreement, which has the potential to shape the rest of the world economy. Economists and policy officials predict that food-safety standards, consumer protection, public health, the environment or national security remain areas of serious debate. However some say that if the cultural exception is the only problematic sector at the start of talks, the two sides have already made great progress.

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  1. […] intended to draft an agreement before beginning discussions with the United States, was marked by conflict over the “cultural exception” that grew into larger criticisms of the European […]

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