France holds out as EU ministers press for US trade deal
EU ministers tried Friday to convince France its prized "cultural exception" could be safely included in talks on the world's biggest free trade deal with the United States but Paris bluntly refused to budge.
France "rejects this mandate," French Commerce Minister Nicole Bricq told her EU colleagues at talks in Luxembourg, as they tried to thrash out the issue before the G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week.
"France will refuse any mandate which does not come with protection of the cultural sector and a clear and explicit exclusion of the audiovisual sector," Bricq said in her opening remarks.
Washington says no areas should be excluded and EU officials have repeatedly warned that any exceptions will only hand the US an early bargaining chip in what promise to be very tough negotiations.
At the same time, ministers are under great pressure to agree the guidelines on which the European Commission will negotiate the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) so the talks can be formally launched at next week's G8 meeting.
Washington and Brussels hope the free trade deal will deliver a major boost to growth and jobs, especially in Europe where the euro debt crisis has left the economy stuck in the doldrums.
An accord would be the world's largest Free Trade Agreement, with bilateral trade in goods last year worth some 500 billion euros ($670 billion), services worth another 280 billion euros and investment flows hitting the trillions.
The EU says it would add some 119 billion euros annually to the EU economy, with 95 billion euros for the United States.
Minister Richard Bruton of Ireland, which holds the current EU presidency, said his colleagues would take up the pact in the afternoon in the hope of finding a compromise.
However as the day dragged on it appeared little progress was being made.
"We are hoping for a good accord," a French diplomatic source said, stressing at the same time that films, TV and music remained a no-go area.
French officials say culture generally in Europe is well protected, but with rapid technological change in the digital era, current protections on films and other content could easily be taken over.
It was therefor far better to exclude audiovisual content now than risk putting it in the talks and get a deal that later proves dated and inadequate, they said.
"We have made a lot of changes to give confidence that the audiovisual sector will be protected," Bruton said.
In an effort to get France on board, the Commission has offered Paris a right of review and approval of any decisions taken on the cultural sector.
This was in addition to an earlier compromise that would ring-fence the audiovisual sector in the US talks to further protect them, Bruton said.
France's Bricq has noted that when the EU approved a mandate for free trade talks with Japan last year, the cultural sector was excluded.
An EU source said of the morning discussions that "a large majority were in favour" of the negotiating mandate on the table but the decision has to be unanimous among all 27 member states.
Germany, which has found itself opposed to France on several issues in recent months, emphasised the need for compromise and said Paris should give some ground.
France jealously guards it cultural sector, with French TV stations required to air at least 40-percent home produced content while another 20 percent must come from Europe before American TV soap operas even get a look in.
Cinema-goers pay a levy on each ticket to help fund the French film industry which many believe could not survive without such support in the face of Hollywood's dominance.
At the meeting, ministers were also to review a series of trade disputes with China which have also exposed deep differences within the EU -- notably between Berlin and Paris.
© 2013 AFP