EU’s ‘stupid’ bid to ban Downton Abbey torn to shreds as UK still member of key treaty

Northern Ireland: UK 'waiting for EU engagement' says Lewis

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The UK is Europe’s biggest producer of film and TV content, but after Brexit, according to an internal EU document, its dominance has been described as a threat to Europe’s “cultural diversity”. Under the EU’s audiovisual media services directive, the majority of airtime must be given to European content on terrestrial TV. It must also make up 30 percent of the number of titles on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon.

Other countries have increased their quotas for European works on video-on-demand platforms.

However, the document, tabled with diplomats on June 8, said in the “aftermath of Brexit” the inclusion of UK content in such quotas had led to a “disproportionate” amount of British content on EU TV.

Adam Minns, the executive director of the Commercial Broadcasters Association (COBA), said: “Selling the international intellectual property rights to British programmes has become a crucial part of financing production in certain genres, such as drama.

“Losing access to a substantial part of EU markets would be a serious blow for the UK TV sector, right across the value chain from producers to broadcasters to creatives.”

Responding to the threat, Brexit Minister Lord David Frost told MPs: “We’re in favour of free circulation of audiovisual goods as of other goods.

“If the EU chooses to harm themselves and their viewers by excluding some categories of UK content we can’t stop them, but I’m sure good sense will prevail and we won’t be in that position.”

He said the move is largely a “traditional position” of the French when it comes to audiovisual arrangements.

In a recent report, head of Oxford-based think-tank Euro Intelligence, Wolfgang Munchau has torn to shreds the report, arguing the move is “stupid and counter-productive”.

Moreover, Mr Munchau insisted Britain is still member of the European convention on Transfrontier Television, which pre-dates the EU.

He wrote: “For starters, this isn’t going to happen for reasons we explain below. We are relaying this story only as a cautionary tale of wasteful opportunity costs. We advised the EU back in 2016 to accept Brexit as a democratic choice and move on. It won’t determine the fate of European integration. But the stuff you don’t do whilst hyperventilating about Brexit will.

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“If it is our goal to ensure a vibrant and diverse European cultural offering, getting rid of The Crown or Downton Abbey is both stupid and counter-productive.”

The EU’s audiovisual media services directive stipulates European content of 30 percent of TV programmes or streaming services must be offered.

Last year, the EU just pipped this threshold: the EU 27 countries had 22 percent of content, the UK eight percent, the rest of Europe two percent, making for some 32 percent.

France imposes a European content rule of 60 percent.

What these numbers are already telling, Mr Munchau insisted, is that the key issue is the definition of European content.

He added: “It does not say EU content. So this boils down to the question of whether the UK is European.

“As the article points out, the UK is a member of the European convention on Transfrontier Television, which is part of the Council of Europe. For readers unfamiliar with the many councils: this is not an EU institution, but an international organisation with 47 members, which predates the EU.

“The EU’s audiovisual directive makes a direct reference to that convention. This means that Brexit should not, prima facie, affect the definition of European content.”

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In an exclusive interview with, Alan Winters, director of the Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex, suggested French President Emmanuel Macron might be behind the report.

He said: “Many trade agreements over the last 30 years have had the splits we are seeing now.

“And they had to be settled through internal politics.

“It has almost always been France saying: ‘We don’t like this, we want to veto it.’

“They resolved them in different ways. For example, the swapping of senior jobs was involved.”

But in other cases, Professor Winters noted, the French were so stubborn, such as in 1994 with audiovisuals services, that Brussels had to cave in.

The trade expert added: “The EU never negotiates audiovisual services because the French don’t allow it and the EU has to exclude that.

“Basically, Paris wasn’t prepared to have Hollywood undermine French culture.”

As Prof Winters explained, France has long been a champion of “cultural exception”, or “cultural diversity”, battling most recently for it to be upheld in the long-mooted, yet-to-be-agreed EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade deal, negotiations for which are reportedly on ice.

The country first introduced the concept of cultural exception during the 1993 negotiations around the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was succeeded by the World Trade Organisation rules in 1995.

Under the principle, cultural goods and services are treated differently from other commercial products, giving countries free rein to support and protect their own cultural sector as they see fit, through subsidies, quotas or obligations.

Last year, Mr Macron confirmed France would ensure the European audiovisual sector was excluded from any all-encompassing UK-EU free trade agreement (FTA) post-Brexit.

Mr Macron laid out France’s position in a letter responding to written concerns expressed by the lobby group, the French Coalition for Cultural Diversity.

Mr Macron wrote: “France has always stood by the exclusion of audiovisual services from free trade agreements. It’s a key issue, for the protection of cultural diversity, on which the Council [of Europe] is unanimous.

“Our country has made this a major point in every commercial negotiation and has secured the exclusion of audiovisual services from all the free trade deals concluded by the European Union.”

He said France would demand “an explicit mention” of the exclusion of audiovisual services in any directives adopted by the EU Commission within the framework of a future FTA between the EU and UK.

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