Accessibility links

Breaking News

European Directors, Brussels Square Off Over U.S.-EU Trade Talks

Winners and hosts onstage at the conclusion of the 66th Cannes International Film Festival in May.
Winners and hosts onstage at the conclusion of the 66th Cannes International Film Festival in May.
In the world of business, bigger is often considered better.

That's why the United States and the European Union are busy trying to create the world’s first two-continent economy with a historic free-trade agreement. The negotiations, launched last month, are aimed at a deal by late next year to allow companies on each side of the Atlantic to freely sell their goods on the other.

But if many in Washington and Brussels see the dropping of customs taxes and protectionist regulations as a way to increase commerce and jump-start their economies, there is one group that wants to be excluded from any deal: European filmmakers.

The filmmakers fear that European trade negotiators could succumb to long-standing pressure from Washington to end European governments’ support for national film industries. Washington sees the subsidies as giving European filmmakers an unfair competitive advantage, but the filmmakers say without them they risk being put out of business by Hollywood.

Radu Muntean is a Romanian director who is among dozens of leading European filmmakers and actors who have signed a 7,000-strong petition urging Brussels not to include Europe’s audiovisual business in the free-trade negotiations.

"I think that such a decision would mean, in one way or another, the end of financing for European cinema," Muntean says. "As we know, a majority of European movies are financed from local or national funds, whether they are being called CNC in France (the Centre National du Cinema) or state funds in Germany, etc. I believe that such funding is very much needed, because otherwise European art cinema will slowly disappear, since we have no chance to compete commercially with American cinema."

Intra-European Tensions

State support in Europe usually involves taxing those who profit from films and other audiovisual products to help support those who create them. Depending on the country, the tax may take the form of a license fee for televisions, a levy on television networks' revenues, or collecting a percentage of cinema ticket prices. The collected money goes into a fund to support producers.

Andre Sapir, an expert on trade issues at the Brussels think tank Bruegel, says there is a deep divide among European states over whether to exclude film and audiovisual services from the free-trade talks.

"There has always been a division among European member states with some -- you could say -- roughly speaking, France and other Latin[-language speaking] countries, being opposed to the inclusion of audiovisual services, while other EU member states have been open to this," Sapir says.

He says that EU states speaking Romance languages already feel hard-pressed by the spread of English-language culture, while Anglo-Saxon EU states deem it less threatening.

The tensions over Europe’s film industry reached a peak just ahead of last month’s G-8 summit as the French government said it would use its veto to block the launch of the trade talks if films and digital media were not excluded. France puts more public funding into its film industry than any other EU member.

The French veto was avoided at the last moment after the EU decided the sector would be kept out of any free-trade agreement with the United States. That permitted U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders to announce the start of the talks on the biggest bilateral trade deal in history at the summit at Lough Erne, in Northern Ireland.

'Who Will Blink First?'

But if the divide was successfully crossed, it remains uncertain for how long.

EU Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso said afterward that critics of liberalized trade in films and music had "no understanding of the benefits that globalization brings, also from a cultural point of view."

And British Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman said, "The audiovisual sector is not on the table at this stage but there is the explicit position for the [European] Commission to propose for it to be brought forward."

One reason the European Commission and many countries are so loath to remove audiovisual products from the negotiations is the nature of the trade talks themselves.

Sapir says that both U.S. and European negotiators have secret red lines for what they want to exclude but want to put off haggling over them as long as they can -- that is, in hopes of getting the broadest deal possible.

"What trade negotiators are always saying, whether it is on one side of the Atlantic or the other, is, 'Look, let's enter the negotiations without any preconditions so that then I would be able to get from the other party the best deal,'" Sapir says. "The United States has certain issues that it would not want to include at the end of the day and there are certain issues that we on the European side would not want to include. The question is: Who will blink first?"

For now, Europe’s filmmakers remain on guard. And with the trade talks likely to last many months more, their campaign for a “cultural exclusion” looks set to have a long life.

The drive to push Brussels for a "cultural exemption" for Europe's films, television shows, and music industries is led by French director Costa Gavras and French actress Berenice Bejo.

Some other well-known signatories of the filmmakers' petition are Austria's Michael Haneke; French directors Catherine Breillat, Agnes Jaoui, and Michel Hazanavicius, whose 2011 film "The Artist" won an Oscar for best picture; Romania’s Radu Mihaileanu and Cristian Mungiu; Spain's Pedro Almodovar; British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach; Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; and Finland's Aki Kaurismaki.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.