June 12, 2013 6:28 pm

European art needs an ‘exception culturelle’ if it is to thrive

Artistic expression and cultural diversity must be protected, writes Michel Hazanavicius

France’s film industry, which produced ‘The Artist’, is protected by quotas and subsidies

We are on the eve of trade negotiations between the US and Europe. The European Commission and the US will soon engage in talks to redefine the rules of exchange between our two parts of the world – the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This is an important deal but I fear this could mark the moment when Europe enters a new era – one in which politics surrender to the market and sacrifice one of our continent’s most precious assets: its culture.

This is because the commission, which acts on behalf of EU member states, seems to care very little about Europe’s cultural riches. It has submitted a draft negotiating mandate to the member states, which will be reviewed at a meeting of trade ministers on Friday, which could undo half a century of careful promotion, defence, preservation and assistance for European culture.

The mandate that has been submitted is a policy failure: it would allow the commission to consider what the EU and its states can and cannot do when it comes to cultural regulations – all to allow for a freer market in artistic products. But Europe needs an exception culturelle : the sector should be outside trade negotiations, in particular with the US.

Giving member states the right to support their domestic cultural industries is the only way for Europe to cope with the dominance of more powerful foreign industries. Such policies are a necessity, given the size of the continent’s many cultural markets, to ensure that local artistic industries can survive. Without their existence, the diversity of Europe’s culture – especially its cinema – is at extremely grave risk.

The irony is that the Americans have for a long time understood that culture – and cinema, in particular – are pillars of Europe’s great power. Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg, titans of Hollywood, echoed European artists’ concerns at the recent Cannes Film Festival, publicly expressing their support for a European cultural exception and praising its artistic importance and, ultimately, its economic value.

“The cultural exception encourages filmmakers to make films about their own culture,” Mr Weinstein said. “It’s good for business, too. We need it more than ever.” What a paradox it is to see our American colleagues trying to prevent Europe from destroying what remains of its ambition for its own cultural diversity.

Indeed, the people who would gain from an end to Europe’s cultural regulations are neither Americans in general nor their entertainment industry. It is the internet giants. They are drastically transforming the cultural scene. We need to be able to adapt to this revolution while preserving our cultures for the decades to come. So what a disappointment it is to see the commission thinking about guaranteeing the notorious Gafa (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) the right to thrive in Europe while continuing to be exempt from any requirement to support European cultural expression, and immune to any national regulations.

What kind of society does the commission really want to promote: the uniform world of the internet giants, or a Europe enlightened by its cultures – and the regulations that come with them?

The European Parliament – the only democratically elected EU organ – has passed a resolution requesting the exclusion of the audio-visual sector from the negotiating mandate. Our elected representatives see, even if the commission does not, that our cultural diversity and excellence is at the heart of the EU’s prestige as well as our identity.

At a time when a democratic deficit in the EU is undermining the ideals of its founding fathers, let’s not squander the cultural diversity that underpins its prestige and our identity as Europeans. We must also hope that the EU stops discrediting itself with its current lack of political vision. Europe is parting with its people. That is why anti-European parties are growing across the continent. Those may soon be the majority in many European countries. Europe must redefine its vision if does not want to die because of its distance from its citizens. Let us hope, in Friday’s meeting, that the member states stand up against the European Commission’s cultural betrayal.

The writer won the Academy Award for best director in 2012 for ‘The Artist’


Letters in response to this column:

Be faithful to a different vision / From Mr Bob Nelson

Americans cherish the highest of brows / From Ms Dylan Gaffney

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