The Cultural Exception

History suggests EU trade fears are real

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | July / August 2013

Feelings are running high about the US-EU Trade Talks that are scheduled to begin in July in Washington.

"The US-EU relationship is the largest in the world – it makes up almost half of global GDP," American President Barack Obama said at the G8 Summit in Ireland in late June. "This potentially ground-breaking partnership would deepen those ties."

But then again, Americans love free trade agreements, because these deals often – as with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – go predominantly in their favour.

The British, too, are keen. To UK Prime Minister David Cameron it’s, "about what could be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, a deal that would have a greater impact than all the other trade deals put together."

And that is the problem. At least to the French, and 13 other EU countries – including Austria – whose culture ministers signed a letter in May asserting what has come to be known as l’exception culturelle – the cultural exception – whose widely used French name reflects their unwavering leadership on this issue.

There are some industries – like film, music and broadcasting – that are expressions of culture, and in profound ways, have to do with who we are.

France like Austria, considers cultural life central to national identity, and allocates €1 billion a year to support French cinema, raised through various media taxes.

They have similar programmes in other areas, including the "40% Law" for French radio (of which 50% must be "new talent") adopted in 1994, which has resulted in revival of the domestic music industry.

In fact, said Michel Hazanavicius, Oscar winning director of The Artist, in a recent radio interview, "Culture is one of the few industries [in France] that is doing well."

In Austria, film has put the country back on the map at the Oscars: for Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters (2008) and Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), two Oscars (2010, 2012) for Christoph Waltz as Best Supporting Actor, a nomination for Götz Spielman’s Revanche (2009).

Few would dispute that this success is, at least in part, due to the generous level of public support for the industry, now at €20 million a year from the nationally funded Austrian Film Institute, €10.7 million from the City of Vienna’s Filmfond Wien, and a full €100 million from the national broadcaster ORF, a level however threatened by system-wide cuts expected next year.

Still opposition to l’exception culturelle is vocal and in high places, including European Council President Jose Manuel Barroso’s recent blunt reference to the French position as an "anti globalisation agenda" that he considered "completely reactionary".

The support for l’exeption has been hard won, and all but disappeared in the weeks following the May signing.

Then, on the eve of the Summit, discussions among the trade ministers gradually came back around to the French position, and in the end, Europeans will indeed go into the US-EU Trade Talks with the audio-visual sector off the table.


The lessons of history

So do Europeans have anything to fear from un-limited US-EU Trade Talks? A look at history suggests, yes: They do and they should.

In a policy that had already begun during World War II, the United States carried out what German filmmaker Wim Wenders called the "colonization of the European sub-conscious".

For a devastated Europe, America came to represent both modernity, but also simply abundance, and a clear message that acquiring material goods replaced any deeper political or cultural idea.

"The ‘pursuit of happiness’," writes Austrian historian Reinhold Wagnleitner, in American Cultural Policy, the Cinema and the Cold War, "was equated with the pursuit of consumption," and "‘Made in America’ symbols, images and codes" saturated every channel of what we now call the media, "with Hollywood at the centre".

Which was not necessarily such a bad thing, if the US had not exploited war-torn Europe's economic vulnerability to force heavily lop-sided, long-term trade agreements, taking whole industries out of European hands for decades to come.

In the culture industries, this regime was the unquestioned price of American help.

"It soon became clear that any European state hoping for US aid or credits had no chance in maintaining film import quotas," Wagnleitner writes. "Friend and foe were presented with the Hollywood ticket: either no quotas, no import duties, no concentration or nationalisation of the local film industries – or no US money."

For example, with the Blum-Byrnes Accord in May of 1946, the French were forced to reduce their domestic quota from 55% to 30%, and French film production fell by half within a year.

In Austria, the American censors’ "Country Memorandum" of 29 January, 1945, called for "uncontrolled access to the market; most-favoured nation treatment; no obligations to release Austrian films or print and dub US films in Austria; and the prohibition of the concentration and nationalization of the Austrian film industry".

Looking back, the human tragedies of war and oppression in 20th century Europe must, in all honesty, be counted not only in lives lost but also in cultures crushed, in that intellecutal and communal capital in which identity is formed.

And while there are many contributing factors, the zeal of American exceptionalism, with its thinly veiled economic self-interest, is certainly one.

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