Planet appeal

The state aid ruling on magazines: an alarming foretoken of the impact TTIP could have on culture…

A presentation given by Planet’s editor at a fringe meeting on TTIP held by Jill Evans MEP at the 2015 Plaid Cymru Annual Conference. Fellow panellists were Fire Brigades Union Regional Secretary Cerith Griffiths and Royal College of Nursing Policy & Public Affairs Adviser Lisa Turnbull.

Many thanks, diolch yn fawr to Jill Evans and her team, whose work within the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament to challenge TTIP and shed light on what could be lost should TTIP go ahead, and inform European citizens about this has been inspiring. I work with Planet: the Welsh Internationalist, the cultural and political magazine which brings together writing on Wales and the rest of the world, and it’s in a spirit of European solidarity and opening the possibility of a new, more progressive European project that I’ll approach the question of the potential impact of TTIP on culture.

There has been little discussion about the impact of TTIP on culture in the UK media. One reason for this is a rather complacent assumption that the principle of ‘cultural exception’ – which has been upheld in EU trade agreements since France introduced it during the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations in 1993 – will automatically protect state support of culture such as television, radio, the visual arts, theatre, film, video games, book and magazine publishing and music, etc.

The European Commission have claimed that the cultural sector will remain unaffected by TTIP due to the ‘cultural exception’ and also because the EU is supposedly legally bound to promote cultural diversity having signed the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, a Convention that, it’s important to note, the US has not signed. However, there is no guarantee that in forthcoming (secret) rounds of negotiations culture will be fully protected. Not only is the ‘cultural exception’ itself is not legally binding but the European Commission themselves admit as far as trade is concerned there is no commonly agreed definition of what counts as ‘culture’ within the EU, and that what is classified as ‘culture’ relies heavily on how the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade and Services (or GATS) divides up economic activities. Rather ominously for Planet, according to the GATS Agreement publishing is classified as a ‘business service’ and not as a cultural service. European Commission documents which attempt to give assurances that culture would be protected under TTIP are full of such obfuscation, omissions, doublethink, and vague declarations of intent which rarely if ever entail legally binding commitments.

In addition, the notion of the ‘cultural exception’ is further endangered as it is ideologically anathema to US representatives, who seem to regard culture as being a commodity like any other. According to an article in the Global Media Journal, earlier rounds of negotiations nearly failed because of France’s insistence on an exemption for culture and the media, and the strength of US opposition to this. In 2013 the European Parliament adopted a resolution asking for audiovisual and cultural services to be excluded from the TTIP negotiating mandate. The European Council agreed that audiovisual services would not be included, but that this could be revised at a later date in the negotiations. According to Helga Trüpel, Green MEP and TTIP Rapporteur, ‘The American negotiators are said to be pushing hard for the future liberalisation of the [audiovisual] sector’. It is therefore far from certain whether audiovisual services, let alone the wider cultural sector, will be safeguarded from TTIP and its blatantly undemocratic, neo-liberal agenda. There seems to be widespread recognition of this uncertainty within the European Parliament, which is reflected in this Summer’s European Parliament document of non-binding recommendations to the European Commission about TTIP, which urged the commission to include measures such as a legally binding general clause in full compliance with the UNESCO Convention in order to protect culture irrespective of the technology or distribution platform used, and to specify that nothing within TTIP should prevent governments offering subsidies to cultural industries and services.

Another reason for the lack of coverage about TTIP and culture is that the potential impact of TTIP on vital progressive achievements such as the NHS has very understandably generated the most alarm. However, while unlikely to be a matter of life and death, the inclusion of cultural activities within TTIP would have profound implications for society, and democracy itself. The ability of governments and publicly funded arms-length bodies to support cultural activities within (for example) theatre, television, publishing, music, the visual arts and film is essential for the participation in the public sphere of people who would otherwise not have a voice within the globalised corporate media and cultural industries; and who are disenfranchised from political systems which in most cases serve elite interests and rarely give meaningful voice to ideas which challenge these interests. For many individuals, the arts simply give life meaning. The ability to tell the story of the collective you belong to – your nation, class, gender or town, is vital for people’s morale, and these stories become essential repositories of memory , especially during periods of political, social or economic upheaval or strife.

In stateless nations like Wales, the place of culture as a vehicle for democratic debate and social change is particularly important. Wales barely registers in either the globalised or UK-wide media. It is marginalised by the UK government and is represented by an Assembly with very limited powers. In Welsh and in English, television, radio, magazines, books, plays, films, art and music from Wales play an essential role in binding together an otherwise fractured public sphere. For Wales, as a relatively poor nation at an emergent stage in the nation-building process, government support of these activities is vital for the distinctive individual and collective expression of Welsh experience. In particular, the future of the Welsh language would be very uncertain should culture be affected by TTIP.

Parallel developments within the EU are an alarming foretoken of how TTIP could remove what’s left of democratic, public control over culture. Due to a tightening of European Commission state aid regulations it has been interpreted as illegal for governments to fund magazines above a low, ‘de minimus’ threshold. State aid to magazines is now considered a threat to cross-border trade. This has been interpreted absurdly as applying even to Planet magazine, which, despite the cosmopolitan scale suggested rather ambitiously by our name, could not conceivably compete in the global media marketplace, as our focus is on Wales, and we have cultural rather than commercial value. English-language cultural magazines supported by the Welsh Books Council therefore have had their funding cut considerably from April 2015 onwards.

The recent inclusion of magazines under state aid legislation shows how crude and uneven the approach to culture can be within the EU. While cultural magazines like ourselves will be affected, books and Welsh-language cultural magazines thankfully won’t. However it looks like Basque-language magazines will be affected, as Basque is a language spoken in more than one state, and could therefore impact on cross-border trade. The French state subsidy of billions of euros to magazines is the most probable reason for the inclusion of magazines under the regulations, but the development shows how devastating the effects can also be on small, under-represented cultures which are invisible within Byzantine and remote structures such as the European Commission.

In the context of an EU which is taking an increasingly neoliberal turn, including tighter restrictions on state aid, and one where US negotiators are losing patience with French policies on cultural provision, it could be asked whether state aid regulation is being used to force open new trade possibilities for TTIP.

Planet’s situation is a one small example among many which demonstrate the need for those campaigning against TTIP in all sectors to look at the trade negotiations as part of a bigger picture of encroaching neoliberalism within the EU. All in all, whether state aid regulation and TTIP are linked in any way or not, the effects of state aid developments demonstrate that despite the reassurances of the European Commission with regard to TTIP, the principles of ‘cultural exception’ and ‘cultural diversity’ can be disregarded and even treated as expendable by EU bodies.