A majority of culture ministers from the European Union's member states will tomorrow (17 May) press for all issues related to television, internet and other media services to be excluded from talks on an EU-US free-trade deal. The bid for an exemption is being led by France, which fears that Europe's ‘cultural exception' – the right to support cultural products through subsidies and quotas – could be undermined if audiovisual services are part of talks on the transatlantic trade and investment partnership.
On Tuesday (14 May), France's culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti, and 13 of her counterparts – from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain – submitted a letter to the presidency of the Council of Ministers, which is currently held by Ireland.
Karel De Gucht, the European commissioner for trade, said on 22 April that “the cultural exception will not be negotiated”. However, while ring-fencing the principle of a cultural exception, which is already protected by EU law, he added that liberalisation and harmonisation in particular business areas should be part of the talks. The EU should, he said, use the talks as a means “to open up new opportunities for Europe's creative industries” in the digital marketplace. The audiovisual sector includes the rapidly-developing areas of the internet and on-demand services.
The culture ministers' debate is billed as an ‘exchange of views', and no conclusion will be reached. But the letter spotlights one of the principal points of contention between member states as they consider what mandate to give the European Commission's negotiators. The Commission hopes to receive a mandate from trade ministers on 14 June, which would make it possible for talks to begin before the summer break. The EU and the US are aiming to sign the free-trade deal by the end of the current Commission term, in late 2014.
The culture ministers' anxiety about the cultural exception could be underscored by a resolution on the free-trade deal in the European Parliament next week (22 May). The Parliament's trade committee on 25 April threw its weight behind the free-trade talks, but, after heavy lobbying by the French government, it narrowly voted for cultural issues to be exempted from the talks. MEPs may be given a free vote on the issue.
The Parliament has only a consultative role in determining the mandate of trade talks, but its approval is required before any deal can be ratified. The UK's prime minister, David Cameron, stated during a visit to Washington, DC on Monday (13 May) that “everything is on the table, with no exception”.