Paris is threatening to block EU-US trade talks that Britain wants to launch at this month’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland if French demands to exclude cultural industries such as music and film are not met.
Washington, London and Brussels are pushing hard for a new transatlantic trade agreement to boost the US and European economies, with President Barack Obama swinging his weight behind the move.
But France has mounted a fierce campaign to defend l’exception culturelle – an internationally-agreed system that allows subsidies, tax breaks and quotas to protect local film, television and music industries from being swamped by mainly American, English-language products.
President François Hollande has made preserving the system a “red line” for agreeing to talks.
The move comes as Europe faces intensifying trade tensions with China, which has launched an investigation into European wine exports. China said the move followed complaints from domestic producers that the rise in Chinese consumption of Bordeaux, Chianti and Champagne was due to illegal subsidies back home. But European officials believe the move was a retaliation for Europe’s proposed tariffs on Chinese solar panels.
On the EU-US trade talks, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and the European Commission want Europe to put as much on the table as possible at the start of the negotiations – including the audio-visual sector – while leaving open the prospect of protecting key sectors at the end of the talks.
In a recent letter to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and all her EU counterparts, Nicole Bricq, the trade minister, warned of “the risks that a refusal to explicitly exclude audio-visual services from the scope [of the talks] would pose to the very launch of negotiations”.
A senior French official said: “Our position is clear. If audio-visual is not excluded there will be no mandate to start the talks.”
He added: “If David Cameron does not want his [G8] party to be spoiled, he will need to convince the commission [to accept France’s position]. They have got to choose.”
Mr Cameron is set to discuss progress on EU-US trade with José Manuel Barroso, the commission president, in Downing St on Thursday, with France’s objections at the top of the agenda. He has made the formal launch of trade negotiations one of the key themes of his chairmanship of the G8 rich nations’ club.
The issue has become fraught for Brussels since many EU trade officials fear that if Europe begins ringfencing industries, the US will respond in kind.
“We should not exclude the audio-visual sector in negotiations with the US,” Mr Barroso said last month. “At the same time, we must make it clear that the cultural exception is not negotiable.”
In addition, the US has insisted all issues be on the table as a precondition for negotiations.
“To accomplish an ambitious and comprehensive agreement, we should not be carving out issues before the negotiation even begins,” said a senior US official involved in the talks.
France mustered the backing of 16 other EU countries, including Germany, for an earlier letter from culture ministers to the commission. “The European position to exclude audio-visual services from [the] negotiations must be expressed from the outset and shall not be limited to traditional broadcasting but fully extended to the digital environment,” it said.
The French official said the government’s stance was bolstered by the low level of general support in France for the new transatlantic initiative. “There is no enthusiasm in France for the trade negotiations. There would be no hesitation on the part of the government [to block the talks].”
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