How Does the EU Try to Promote a European Identity via Cinema?

Oct. 1, 2020, 10 a.m.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic not only effected national states, but also had an important impact on the European Union. It brought back old debates on European versus national identity leading to headlines about a ‘European Identity Crisis’. Inspired by these current discussions, our European Studies and International Relation MA students wrote on different aspects of European identity.

In this special blog series, we would like to share with you four research papers submitted in the course of the seminars ‘Special Topics in European Studies’ and ‘Political Sociology’. While our first three contributions deal with European identity in the context of the recent pandemic, the last explores the connection between European identity and cinema.

In his research paper ‘How Does the EU Try to Promote a European Identity via Cinema?, our MA Erasmus exchange student Ignace Nédéé from the Law Department at Ghent University discusses EU film policy and its efforts to promote a European identity, while encouraging  cultural diversity on screen. His paper was submitted for the seminar ‘Special Topics in European Studies’ in the spring term 2020.


How Does the EU Try to Promote a European Identity via Cinema?

By Ignace Nédée


The views and opinions expressed in this blog entry are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Istanbul Bilgi University and European Institute.


How does the European Union try to develop a European identity via cinema? Is there a socio-cultural ‘European identity’? Is it manageable to promote a pan European identity on one hand, and promote cultural differences and diversity on the other? Is there a ‘European Cinema’ and what kind of measures does the EU take to protect and promote EU-cinema? Is it successful or is too protectionist vis-à-vis the dominance of Hollywood?

Context, Difficulties and Tensions

Audiovisual productions, and especially films, play an important role both for the construction as for the conservation of European identities. They reflect cultural diversities, different histories and traditions of the various Member States and regions within the European Union.
European cinema is highly fragmented because of the cultural and national differences between the different Member States and regions. Regarding ‘European cinema’, it is very difficult to find a unity, because of the fact that the European film sector is a collection of regional, national and transnational productions and because of the fact that the European Member States differ on a significant socio-cultural level. For example, cultural and cinematographic differences can be observed between Western European movies and Eastern European films. An important factor might be the fact that the film industry in Eastern Europe has only been privatized after the fall of communism in the 1990’s. It is not evident to define ‘European Cinema’, because European movies are so different regarding the used language, methods and stories. But in a way, I think that European movies, regardless of their origin, can be distinguished from the omnipresent American (mainstream) cinema. 
Within the European audiovisual sector, some contradictions and tensions can be observed. A first difficulty is the contradiction between the perception of film as a ‘cultural good’, on the one hand, and as an ‘economic commodity’ on the other. Audiovisual projects can be seen as economic goods providing important opportunities and contributions for the creation of jobs and for the prosperity of societies in general. However, we can also categorize audiovisual productions as cultural goods that reflect our societies. The latter is particularly important for the development and preservation of cultural identity and diversity within the European Union.

Another contradiction is the contrast between two essential objectives of the European Union: while one European objective consists of the protection of cultural diversity, the other aims to develop a common and free market for audio-visual works. These two ambitious objectives aren’t always easy to reconcile.
Another tension regarding EU film policy is the conflict between national and supranational policies. There is a certain conflict between, on the one hand, the national cultural sovereignty of the Member States and on the other, the policies of the European Union. The European Commission has the legal competence to monitor free competition and, more generally, for ‘all activities with an economic dimension’. Theoretically, this includes the film sector. But on the other hand, it’s the Member States who are responsible and competent for directing national cultural policies, such as defining the requirements to grant financial aid to film producers. Also, these legal competences are not always easy to align.

Another difficulty is the dominance of Hollywood. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the European cinematographic sector has been dominated by non-European and mainly American works. It appears that the US stays able to maintain its dominance. They seem to continue investing massively in production, distribution and marketing, which makes it difficult for the European film industry to resist this dominance in the global audio-visual sector. Unlike the US film industry, the budgets that are invested in the development, production and distribution of European films is generally less spectacular. In addition to this financial aspect, the strong fragmentation remains an important disadvantage for European film production and marketing to compete with Hollywood. Besides, the linguistic differences within the EU also make it difficult to cooperate and to find transnational audiences. Another factor contributing to this burdensome competition lays in the fact that most European films are produced by smaller production companies, while Hollywood films are often produced by 
very powerful American multinationals with more financial and technical capacities, bigger networks. Further, big American film companies often manage both the production as the distribution of films, which give them strong cost efficiency benefits.

Nevertheless, the European Union has endeavored to bring a unity between the interests of the Member States and the Union, by developing detailed film policies through the years. Via direct and indirect, positive and restrictive measures, the EU has tried - and is still trying - to protect the European film industry, to create and stimulate a cultural identity, while promoting cultural diversity. The stories and images that are represented in European movies help perceivers to discover new cultures, traditions and identities. Besides, new cultures and identities can be generated through movies for example by showing specific issues, music or new (urban) languages.


EU-Cinema Policy – Two Approaches: ‘Restrictive’ and ‘Positive’ Measures

a.    First approach: restrictive measures

Through the years, the European Union has taken quite some negative or restrictive measures in the audio-visual sector such as import quotas. With these restrictive measures, the EU is attempting to limit the income of foreign films and, above all, to combat Hollywood dominance. The main idea is to promote and to protect to domestic productions.

In 1948, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was signed to promote and stimulate the world trade and to remove the traditional protectionist trade barriers. After the Second World War, market liberalization and international cooperation were established to improve trade. During the negotiations of this international pact, the US tried to include the audio-visual sector into the GATT. Under the pressure of the American film industry, the US insisted to abolish the strict European import quotas on foreign films and to address the funding system for European film and television. Nevertheless, the EU and especially France refused to include audio-visual goods in the General Agreement, for the sake of the protection of the cultural industries within the EU. Eventually, audio-visual goods were not implemented, and the European quotas continued to apply.

During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the GATT members continued to negotiate about the world trade. During the Uruguay Round, the GATT members not only established the World Trade Organization, they also agreed to further deregulate trade and to include services in the GATT agreement. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), including the international trade both of goods as of services, became a fact. The idea was to liberalize and improve the international market, and to stimulate the progressive growth of trade of goods and services. Also during these negotiations, the US insisted on including film and television into the General Agreement to limit the EU's protectionist audio-visual policy. While the US considered the audio-visual sector as commercial products and services, saleable on the market conform the principles of the free market, the EU (and especially France) perceived audio-visual goods as cultural products. According to the latter, audio-visual goods can’t be subject to the principles of the free market.

Nevertheless, the audio-visual sector was eventually included in the Agreement. But it provided some restrictions and limitations. According to this Agreement, the members of the WTO remain able to decide to what extent they want to enter into commitments concerning audio-visual goods and services. In fact, few international commitments and agreements were concluded over the years, which permitted the EU to continue its protectionist audio-visual trade policy. Still today, the EU is adopting regulations and applying quotas in order to ensure cultural diversity in Europe. However, I doubt the effectiveness of this protectionism. Creativity and innovation are crucial elements for a modern, diverse and flourishing society. Therefore, it is of great importance to promote and incentivize creations, not only in industrial and scientific domains, but also in the field of art, literacy and cinema. Freedom of speech and creation is necessary to encourage people to be creative, to be inventive. Adequate regulation and effective enforcement are indeed crucial, but I am not entirely convinced that applying import quotas on foreign films is the most appropriate model. Besides, the arrival of new technologies is shaking our societies and forces us to reshape our priorities in a globalized world. Digitalization gives rise to new legal questions concerning the audio-visual sector. Cinema is increasingly happening online, which might make the established regulations obsolete.

b.    Second approach: positive measures

To incentivize the creation of (co)productions of European films, and (in)directly promote European values and identities, quite some ‘positive’ or supporting measures are taken. Typically, incentivizing measures have a financial nature. To stimulate the European film production and distribution, financial support is given mainly in the form of subsidies and tax advantages. For example, national or regional authorities provide tax exemptions to encourage investors to fund film projects, taking into consideration that investment in cinema carries potential financial risks due to its unpredictable nature.

Another example of positive measures are subsidies. Depending on the supranational, national and regional (and sometimes local) subsidy system, financial supports are usually granted ‘automatically’ or ‘selectively’, depending on the concerning regulation. Without these supporting measures, it is often difficult for film producers to survive financially and to realize film projects, considering that films generally need quite some investment, and aren’t always lucrative. With these European audio-visual promoting measures, the EU attempts to encourage the production and dissemination of European film projects as much as possible, to increase the share of the global market. The EU is also trying to promote co-productions between regional institutions in order to generate greater exchanges in technical, political and artistic terms.

Thirdly, in addition to fiscal advantages and subsidies, European film prices can also form an important incentive for the development, making and distribution of European films. By awarding film prices, such as the Palme d'or or the Grand Prix (Cannes Film Festival) and the LUX Prize, to (qualitative) European films, certain European values can be accentuated and spread. Through awarding European films that carry promotable values, the public might see or realize what the EU citizens have in common and they might learn about the culture of the Member State in which the film is being produced or performed. In other words, granting (prestigious) film prices can contribute to the representation and promotion of cultural identity and cultural diversity such as different traditions, languages and history. Therefore, audio-visual works, and especially films, play an important social and cultural role within the Member States and the EU and they might support the creation of European identities.

I believe that culture is a process that is created by the members of a community exchanging meanings with each other. This makes culture dependent on how members of society perceive and interpret the ‘world’. Film is an excellent medium for this. Via cinema, a special focus can be put both on what EU members have in common, as what makes them diverse. Language is also an important aspect here. Thoughts, feelings and ideas (within a certain culture) can be represented by language. Language can symbolize a certain identity.

Since its existence, the EU has faced several challenges such as an undemocratic image, a lack of public confidence in the EU or in her institutions, a lack of transparency in EU policy, a lack of democratic control over the European institutions by the EU citizens, and a lack of a general feeling of ‘belonging’ to the EU, of being part of one ensemble, one union. It appears to be an eternal quest to find a European (cultural) ‘identity’.
Nonetheless, The EU is trying to construct a cultural identity, particularly through cinema, and to highlight elements that EU citizens share. This is not an obvious target.

Firstly, the EU has only limited cultural powers. The exercise of the EU’s competence is limited by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Following the subsidiarity principle, the EU can’t intervene in areas in which it doesn’t have exclusive competence, unless the objectives of a certain action can’t be sufficiently achieved by the Member state or can be better achieved on the European level. The main idea of this legal principle, provided by article 5(3) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), is to safeguard the ability of the Member States to take decisions and action concerning certain policies - such as culture - and to ensure that powers are exercised as close to the citizen as possible. In a way, this legal principle prevents homogenization of culture and protects national and regional cultures of the Member States. So, in theory this implies that legislations and policies concerning ‘culture’ should always be in the hands of the EU member states, and the EU can’t legitimately intervene unless its ‘necessary’. However, despite the EU's lack of competence in cultural policy, the EU does have the competence to develop economic policies. To increase international cooperation and to promote the production and distribution of cultural content as ‘economic goods’, the EU has launched several cultural initiatives over the years, such as the organization of European film festivals.

Secondly, the EU must reconcile this objective of cultural identity with the objective of cultural diversity. Through the provision of financial support for audiovisual (co)production and distribution of films, financing and providing subtitles for movies, and awarding (prestigious) film awards, the EU is trying to form and promote a cultural identity. In this way, the EU is attempting to create a sense of ‘togetherness’ and to disseminate cultural characteristics to create a kind of coherent community feeling or European ‘consciousness’.

By giving awards to films carrying certain perceivable ‘European values’, the EU might be able to demonstrate that the Member States not only have differences, but also similarities. European values such as human dignity, equality and freedom often return to European films that have been awarded and might be the thing that EU members reunites. European films cannot be regarded as a single genre, but by giving European prizes to films representing cultural characteristics and bearing recurrent European values, a certain contribution can be made to a European cultural identity.


Concluding Remarks

The objective to create a ‘European identity’ seems to be complex quest, considering the different languages, religions, traditions and political and philosophical ideas within the socio-culturally fragmented EU. However, there are some tensions and contradictions within the European audio-visual sector. It isn’t always clear if films should be perceived as cultural or economic goods and how to align the European objective to protect cultural diversity and the objective to develop a common and free market for audio-visual works. Another remaining challenge is to determine to what extend the EU has the legal competence to define cultural policies within the limits of the subsidiarity principle.

Nevertheless, the European Union has endeavoured to bring a unity between the interests of the Member States and the Union by developing detailed film policies through the years. “In varietate concordia” is the motto of the European Union, meaning that Europeans are united in their efforts for peace and prosperity, and that Europe's many different cultures, traditions and languages are actually the asset of the continent. Via (in)direct positive and restrictive measures in the audio-visual sector, the EU tries to protect the European film industry from the Hollywood dominance, to create and stimulate a cultural identity, while promoting cultural diversity.
On the one hand, the EU seems to continually adopt protectionist regulations and to apply import quotas on foreign (American) movies, in order to ensure cultural diversity in Europe and to promote a cultural identity. I have some doubts about the effectiveness and adequation of this protectionist regime considering that new technologies, digitization and globalization are reshaping our societies.
One the other hand, the EU attempts to incentivize the creation of (co)productions of European films, and (in)directly promotes European values and identities by taking ‘positive’ or supporting measures, such as granting tax advantages to investors and giving automatic or selective subsidies to film producers to promote the (co)production and distribution of European films. Besides, by granting prestigious prices, such as the LUX price, to European films that reflect certain ‘European values’, the EU attempts to accentuate and promote a European cultural identity.



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