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When in February 2013, US President Obama called for negotiations on a US-EU free trade agreement and was immediately echoed by EU officials van Rompuy and Barroso, widespread enthusiasm came first: Businessmen cheered the vision of joining the two regions accounting for almost half of the world’s GDP, and economists stood ready to present their age-old calculations about the benefits of free trade. Yet soon, controversy rose, and some Europeans had their reservations about deregulating their cultural industries. Does free trade work for European culture?

In times of crisis, the (all but new) idea of free trade in the North Atlantic area comes in handy. Certainly, agreement over the “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership” (TTIP) could remove unnecessary trade barriers and boost growth at no cost. In the words of EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht, it is “the cheapest stimulus package you can imagine”. If negotiations succeed, Europeans can expect the creation of some 400,000 jobs, according to the Commission’s calculations. Given the state of labour markets, a spark of hope.

Here comes the downside. Creating a free trade area will not so much be about cutting the (marginal) tariffs, but more about removing non-tariff trade barriers: Product standards must be harmonised; regional subsidies eliminated. This is where the fundamental differences begin. Just think of the different notions of food safety that would have to be aligned: While Americans are wary of mouldy Roquefort cheese, Europeans do not want hormone-treated beef on their kitchen tables. Genetically modified crops are nothing to worry about in the US; they are in Europe.

While such differences do not seem unsolvable, one major controversy has erupted preceding the first round of negotiations in July, when the French government, supported by several other member states, insisted on a “cultural exception”: The audiovisual sector, i.e. the film and music industries, should be excluded from free trade negotiations. The Commission at least superficially gave in.

“Economie et culture, même combat”, former French culture minister Jack Lang once boasted. Why is it so important for France and others that their cultural arrangements are spared by TTIP? While in the US, the arts are none of the state’s business, most European states entertain a broad system of subsidies and regulations concerning their music, film and book industries as well as their cultural institutions. Consider the example of film production: In 2000, France supported its industry with  800 million, the UK with € 270 million and Germany with € 200 million. These subsidies do not exist on such a scale in the US. The idea is simple, and as old as the movie picture itself: To protect and promote European arts in Hollywood-driven markets.

A second example, beyond the audiovisual sector: Via fixed book prices agreements, publishing houses in a number of European countries tie retailers to a certain price level. Dumping excluded – whether you sell in the department store, on the internet or in the bookshop round the corner. The idea: To induce publishers not only to cater their blockbuster readers but promote the sale of little-known and more sophisticated literature, cross-subsidised by their “over-priced” bestsellers.

TTIP, critics fear, could endanger European film and literature. The cultural landscape as a whole, even. For harmonizing culture industries, as the free trade negotiations would entail, either demands that the US adopt a system of subsidies and regulations as well – how unlikely! – or that Europe give up its cultural arrangements. The more pessimistic ones see Hollywood and Amazon steamroll French cinemas and German bookstores.

On the contrary, some argue that a half-hearted agreement, perforated like a Swiss cheese, is not worth the effort, and protectionism is bad in any instance. Seen from a less economist perspective, however, it is clear that at the root of the controversy there are two different philosophies about the value of culture. In many European countries, culture tends to be seen as partially public good, available in good as in bad times; a luxury that society affords, no matter whether there is always a business-case. In the US, culture is often considered a case for profit or one for sponsorship.

It is hard to see how to reduce these two conceptions to a common denominator. And why should you? There is no reason why TTIP should not work with culture excluded. The EU has its single market; yet it has not banned protectionist measures by its member states in the cultural sector. Rightly so: In an environment where standards of governance and the economy increasingly converge, there seems to be less and less room for diversity. Without some cultural plurality, “unified in diversity” reads like a rather empty slogan. Just because the free trade is about to cross the Atlantic, no need to sacrifice it.

This post originally appeared on EUSpeak.

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