The European Parliament supports the cultural exception

The European Parliament supports the cultural exception

The vote is without appeal: 381 votes for, 191 against and 17 abstentions. The European Parliament, assembled in a plenary session in Strasbourg on Thursday, May 23rd, 2013, clearly expressed its refusal to see cultural and audiovisual services used as trading tools in global trade negotiations with the United States.

Last March, at the initiative of President Barroso and the European Commissioner for Commerce Karel De Gucht, the European Commission proposed the launch of a transatlantic partnership for trade and investment between the European Union and the United States. In complete contradiction with previous trade negotiations, the draft project proposed by the European Commission ignored the cultural exception, a concept which considers that cultural and audiovisual goods and services must not be treated like any other merchandise.

Despite the UNESCO convention of 2005 ratified by the European Union and its member states, which aims to keep cultural goods and services out of a purely commercial context and to create an international forum for the discussion of cultural policies necessary for the development of the diversity of cultural expression, and whose stakes are rising substantially in the digital era, the European Commission did not hesitate to propose that cultural and audiovisual services be included in these new negotiations in the interest of the positive effects of free trade.

European filmmakers as well as Ministers of Culture immediately mobilized to remind the Commission of its commitments to cultural diversity and all the national and European policies, both existing and future, which would be threatened by such negotiations. A letter from the Ministers of Culture was sent to President Barroso and European filmmakers launched a petition.

Karel de Gucht attempted to reassure everyone by proclaiming: “Cultural exception is not up for negotiation!” (press release, April 22nd). Unfortunately, Mr De Gucht only envisaged the maintaining of existing policies and subsidy or quota mechanisms (a “standstill” was referred to: policies would be frozen at the time when the agreement was signed). As for the future and the possibility of adapting our cultural policies to the digital era, Mr. De Gucht considered that they must be left on the negotiating table. Mr De Gucht did not see any problem in keeping Europeans from defining their own society choices for the future. Without voicing any scruples, he considered the possibility of the EU and its member states committing themselves vis-à-vis the United States to renouncing, for example, all policies whereby Internet operators would contribute to the funding of culture. He even explained to European filmmakers who went to meet him on May 6th that trade negotiations are a game of poker and that they should trust him to defend European interests!

Such a trivial approach to the cultural sovereignty of the European Union and its member states is inadmissible, and the European Parliament understood it to be so. During the adoption of its resolution on negotiations targetting a trade agreement between the European Union and the United States on May 23rd, the European Parliament clearly stated that only the exclusion of cultural and audiovisual sectors would make it possible to keep these sectors safe from American intervention: the European Parliament “believes that it is essential for the Union and its member states to maintain the possibility of preserving and developing their cultural and audiovisual policies, and this, within the framework of their legislative, normative and conventional rights; and thus requires that the exclusion of services with cultural and audiovisual content, including online, be clearly stipulated in the negotiation’s mandate” (paragraph 11).

This vote is extremely important as it gives the European Commission a clear warning and explicitly asks that it reviews its draft copy. This vote is also a strong political message to the member states, since they have the final word in these matters. Indeed, as far as trade goes, the European Commission negotiates in the name of the member states on the basis of a negotiation mandate that these same member states entrust to the Commission.

On June 14th, the member states, and in particular Ministers in charge of foreign trade, will decide the content of this mandate. They hold in their hands the fate of cultural exception and the capacity of the EU to decide the future of its cultural policies.

The only way to protect existing and future cultural and audiovisual policies from the risk of being sacrificed in the interest of European opportunities to access the American market in other sectors is to exclude them from this global negotiation. This is what European professionals are demanding and what they have just obtained from the European Parliament.

Mobilization continues and will focus more specifically on national governments until June 14th. Join us by signing the filmmakers’ petition!

Click here to read the petition.