GATT and Beyond: World Trade, the Arts and American Popular Culture in Western Europe

By Elteren, Mel van | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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GATT and Beyond: World Trade, the Arts and American Popular Culture in Western Europe


Elteren, Mel van, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In September 1993, more than 4,000 European intellectuals, artists and producers published a petition for "cultural works" to be excluded from the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) in six major European newspapers. It was aimed against the purported threat of a worldwide supremacy of Hollywood and in the defense of European audiovisual industries. This public appeal was an initiative by French intellectuals who have been the leading critics of the presumed Americanization of European culture for a long time (Mathy). This is not unexpected; France has the most articulate state policy on the question of cultural defense in Europe and the greatest resistance to American domination of films for cinemas and TV. In the GATT negotiations at the time, the French defended two measures in particular: a 60 percent quota of European content of films shown on television and a 13 percent tax on tickets sold at the box office, to be used to subsidize innovative films, art-house cinemas, independent distributors, film festivals, film schools to the value of $150 million a year (Ciment 5; Robinson 31, qtd. in Schlesinger 1996: 99). It was one of the successive manifestations of the US-France clashes over audiovisual and cultural issues from the early 1980s onwards. These centered on the European Commission's policy document Television Without Frontiers (1984) which culminated into a directive of the same name in 1989 (first implemented in October 1991) that aimed at equality of access to the market applied to television broadcasting across national borders, and on the inclusion or exclusion of the audiovisual sector within the GATT Uruguay round negotiations (1986-1993).

American popular culture played a major role in the global clash between la Francophonie and the Anglo-Saxons, which had been articulated through the notion of a "Latin audiovisual space" by the French in the early to mid-1980s. This confrontation was transposed to a supranational level, however, in official European thinking, Americanization has recently been represented as a threat to European culture, thereby employing the rhetoric of cultural war.

Ultimately, in mid-December 1993, the European Union succeeded in having audiovisual services excluded from the market liberalization agreement with the USA. The United States, however, refused to freeze television quotas and domestic film production support schemes as advocated by the European Commission. The US objected to the quota on European content prescribed by the EU's Television Without Frontiers directive of 1989 and to subsidies on European film production. (The directive in question contains a regulation that over 50 percent of television programs in Europe should be of European origin, "where practicable.") The main argument of the Americans was that movies and TV programs are commercial products just like any other, and therefore article four of the TVWF directive was anticompetitive. Moreover, European countries have been accused of censorship by excluding the US products concerned, in which the sovereignty of the consumer was invoked (Schlesinger 1993: 39). When GATT was being negotiated in 1993, the American aim, then as in 1947, when GATT came into being, was to remove all restrictions on free circulation. Although the US now agreed to exclude the audiovisual sector, this was not an acceptance of the formal principle of cultural exclusion as defended by the French. The US stuck to its standpoint that there be bilateral negotiations between the EU and the USA in the future, within the general framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The basic strategy of the European Union in the GATT negotiations shows a clear analogy with the way in which Canada has acted in its trade negotiations with the United States, in relation to the earlier Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and the recent North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the NAFTA Canadian culture industries are exempted, with the specific argument that cultural standardization of content and the complete foreign control of distribution will be prevented.

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