The European Union and the U.S. are expected to begin discussions later this year that could result in the removal of trade barriers between the world’s two biggest economies by October 2014. But, in an uproar reminiscent of the tensions surrounding the 1993 GATT talks, European filmmakers are up in arms over a perceived threat to their “cultural exception.”

Last month, the European Commission adopted a draft negotiation mandate that includes the audiovisual and film industries in the proposed talks with the U.S. Their inclusion, which goes against the cultural exception’s raison d’être of treating cultural goods and services differently than others, led dozens of filmmakers last week to sign a petition entitled “The Cultural Exception Is Non-Negotiable!” Signatories include Michael Haneke, Michel Hazanavicius, Pedro Almodovar, Stephen Frears, Roger Michell, Costa Gavras, Paolo Sorrentino, Thomas Vinterberg and Cristian Mungiu as well as non-European directors Walter Salles, Jane Campion and David Lynch.

The cultural exception has its roots in 1993 when a furor erupted as Hollywood, notably led by late MPAA chief Jack Valenti, wanted to include the audiovisual industries in the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations. Europe, led by France, balked. Member states claimed that including the arts would threaten their quota and subsidy systems and put them in danger of total Hollywood hegemony. Hours from the deadline, a deal was struck and Europe got its way.

In their current petition, Euro filmmakers say 20 years ago, “the cultural exception burst onto the international scene, leading to the recognition of a specific status for audiovisual works as they are not just goods like any others and must therefore be excluded from trade negotiations.” The group calls the proposed negotiations mandate “a renunciation,” “a capitulation” and “a breaking-point” which would “reduce culture to nothing more than a commodity.” The group further argues that the trade negotiations appear “strikingly like a conscious desire to bring European culture to its knees.”

Karel De Gucht, the European Commissioner for trade responded this week saying, “Europe will not put its cultural exception at risk… Nothing in the free trade agreement with the United States will harm – or even have the potential to harm – Europe’s cultural diversity.” But that wasn’t quite good enough for France’s external commerce minister Nicole Bricq and culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, who said, “France has placed a sine qua non condition on its accord for trade negotiations with the United States: The full respsect of the cultural exception and in particular the pure and simple exclusion of audiovisual. The draft mandate must therefore be modified” to erase De Grucht’s “ambiguity.” They added, “France will not compromise. The exclusion of audiovisual services is not negotiable. A policy statement is not enough.” The Commission must deliver the written mandate to the ministers by May 3.

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