STRASBOURG, France – A cloud is hanging over the upcoming free-trade talks between the European Union and the United States after France said it won’t back any deal that threatens the country’s prestigious film, radio or TV industries.
The stakes are high because any deal could have major implications for global trade and could serve as a model for future deals. Together, the U.S. and the EU make up nearly half the world economy and 30 per cent of global trade.
The audiovisual sectors have traditionally been excluded from global free-trade agreements under what is known as the “cultural exception,” which allows governments to subsidize and protect them. In general, free-trade agreements are supposed to limit or ban such support.
“France is asking for an exclusion from the negotiation of what it considers of course to be cultural products but which are also a mark of European identity,” French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Bricq said the latest draft of the negotiating mandate, to be presented to EU ministers Friday, still has audiovisual services on the table — and that’s not acceptable to France.
European officials have said the “cultural exception” would be preserved. But many are concerned that once audiovisual services are on the table, their protections could be eroded in the back-and-forth tussle of tough negotiations.
William Kennard, the American ambassador to the EU, said that it’s exactly because the negotiations will be tough that the U.S. has pushed for everything to be on the table.
“We know our negotiators are going to have to be creative and innovative,” he said, and so they need the maximum flexibility to reach a comprehensive deal. “If Europe insists on taking issues off the table, it’s natural it will come at a cost.”
For example, the U.S. could pull back on public procurement or other services, a person in Washington familiar with the issues said. The person would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues.
France and others don’t have the power to block the negotiations from going forward at this point, but any treaty will eventually need the backing of all 27 EU member countries.
And Bricq said the European Commission, the EU’s executive body which is tasked with negotiating with the U.S., would be unwise to move ahead without the support of the bloc’s second-largest economy.
Concerns over the talks have prompted European actors, writers and directors to head to Strasbourg on Tuesday to make an appeal at the European Parliament to protect their work. The parliament has already voted to keep audiovisual services off the table.
Berenice Bejo, the French actress who hit the global stage with the black-and-white film, The Artist, said the fear is there would only be big commercial films if the exception is scrapped.
She and others said that the cultural exception — and the subsidies it protects — are vital to maintaining a diverse offering at movie theatres. Polish director Dariusz Jablonski also noted that subsidies are vital to film industries in countries with languages not widely spoken elsewhere.
“For example, The Artist was a film that nobody wanted because no one wanted to show a silent, black-and-white film in prime time,” said Bejo. “And in the end, we made it, it exists thanks to the cultural exception, thanks to all the subsidies we have in France.”
Those subsidies are one of the reasons the cultural exception is most associated with France, where 770 million euros ($1 billion) were handed out last year to films. France also has strict quotas for how much content on television and radio must be French or European.
But the French are not alone. European culture ministers, including those from Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy, signed a letter last month calling for culture to maintain its special status.
“It’s an entire policy of the EU and its member-states that will be compromised if the exclusion that we’re asking for isn’t insured,” the letter said.
But even Bricq concedes that others may not be willing to go as far as the French.
The Irish government, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, says the cultural exception is the last major sticking point before a mandate can be approved Friday.
Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed from Brussels.