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Culture: Reset!

For the cultural sector, the consequences of the pandemic are felt beyond emergency fundings. The impact differs according to artistic disciplines and European countries. In addition to the cross-border projects of Europe Creative, setting up of a common cultural policy could be a solution to rebuild the Europe of culture.

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Author : Antoine Pecqueur

Photo Credit : Elly White

It’s a dramatic boost. For 2021-2027, the Creative Europe budget amounts to 2.4 billion euros, compared to 1.4 billion euros for 2014-2020 (European budgets are set as part of a seven-year framework). The priority objective announced by the European Parliament is “reinforcing the resilience and recovery of the cultural and creative sectors in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Generally speaking, the health crisis has restored Brussels’ pivotal role. As part of its vast economic recovery plan – the result of tough negotiations between member countries –, Europe will distribute nearly 750 billion euros. Along with aeronautics and tourism, the cultural sector is among the most affected by the crisis. According to the study by Ernst & Young/Gesac, the turnover of the European cultural and creative economy fell by 31% in 2020 to 444 billion euros. Between 2013 and 2019, the sector’s turnover had risen by 93 billion euros (+17%), reaching 643 billion euros in 2019. The drop is therefore all the more abrupt, even if the impact varies between art-forms. Performing arts have suffered the most drastic downturn with a 90% fall in revenue for theatre and dance, while book sales are faring better (-25%). There are also notable differences between countries: the greatest decline is in eastern Europe, where social security systems remain much less efficient than their western counterparts.

Faced with this observation and the fact that around 3.7% of Europeans work in the cultural and creative sectors, representing 4.2% of GDP, Brussels wanted to show its tangible and resounding support. But beyond the present urgency, the European Parliament also wanted to set Creative Europe on a longer course. There will be “more focus on music, inclusivity and promotion of female talent,” an EU Parliament press release stated. While the cultural world is still marked by an over-representation of male figures (orchestra conductors being one of the most emblematic examples), Europe is seeking to reverse this trend. Inclusivity is also a part of this societal commitment. In the face of migration issues, the arts have become a major instrument of integration. Finally, a focus has been placed on music to counterbalance the notion that European funding is primarily aimed at cinema.

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After Metamorphosis, a project with Creative Europe © Elly White

But will the figures reflect this change in rhetoric? To answer this, we must analyse how Creative Europe’s new budget is being allocated. 1.3 billion will be dedicated to the Media programme, in charge of developing, promoting and distributing films, while 1.1 billion will go to the Culture strand, which supports cross-border cultural projects, as well as to the Cross-sectoral strand (a financial instrument supporting entrepreneurship). The Media strand therefore still dominates, even more so than in the previous budget distribution. An unprecedented support for news media in this new budget should also be noted.

Cinema will thus still receive the most support by far from Creative Europe. Yet according to the EY/Gesac study, this sector was not the most directly impacted by the crisis, experiencing a 22% drop in turnover. Nevertheless, the film economy is based on a long cycle: while shooting could still take place (except at the start of the pandemic), uncertainty now weighs on future releases. Cinema closures resulted in several months of delays, creating a bottleneck of films awaiting their release and a loss of income for the sector. Producers and distributors will not have had the chance to refill their coffers and jump straight into new projects. The multi-annual European support framework will therefore provide the industry with a long-term accompaniment.

 

If music seems to have found favor with Europe within the Culture strand, it is likely due to the results of a study on the economic impact of music, published last November and carried out by Oxford Economics for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. This study reveals that the music sector contributes 81.9 billion euros to the European economy (including the UK at the time) and represents two million jobs.

Festival Atmosphères, a project with Creative Europe © Elly White

Economic concerns underpin Creative Europe’s policy. Indeed, MEPs affirmed that “the new generation of the programme has been developed with two important objectives in mind: firstly, the safeguarding, development and promotion of European cooperation on cultural diversity and heritage. Secondly, to increase the competitiveness and economic potential of the cultural and creative sectors, in particular the audio-visual sector. Through this technocratic newspeak, an economic rationale for culture is being reasserted. In France, this had already been highlighted by the joint report of the Ministries of Culture and the Economy, released in December 2013. While pointing out the industry’s contribution to GDP emphasises its palpable significance, the latter cannot simply be boiled down to the former: economic impact should be the consequence, not the starting point of culture.

 

We must also curb our enthusiasm and put Creative Europe’s budgetary increase into perspective, considering it not in absolute but in relative terms. If we include the economic recovery plan, the overall EU budget will exceed €1800 billion. Creative Europe thus represents only 0.14% of this budget, no more than in the previous framework. We should note that the recovery plan as such does not include culture, whereas Europe is obliging member countries to make commitments in specific sectors such as the environment and digital technology. Brussels is merely encouraging – not requiring – member states to invest 2% of their stimulus packages into culture, and it’s unlikely that member states will follow this “advice”.

Once again, we come up against the fact that culture is only a supporting competence for Europe. This competence is one of the most limited: it only covers cross-border projects, leaving each member state to conduct its own cultural policy. Agriculture, for example, is a much stronger so-called “shared competence”.

Open the owl, a project with Creative Europe © Elly White

Is the EU facing an impossible harmonisation of its cultural policies? The differences between member states are sometimes extreme. The countries that devote the largest proportion of their budget to culture are those of the Visegrad group, with Viktor Orban‘s Hungary in the lead. The purpose here is to support a culture of propaganda that serves a nationalist discourse. Minority cultures are sidelined.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most liberal countries have tended to delegate culture to the private sector, following the Anglo-Saxon model. But the health crisis has undermined this model by further weakening institutions dependent on their own resources. In this context, how a common cultural policy be defended?

 

There has been one successful example in this area: the copyright directive. After being rebutted at the first reading, and notably rejected by Polish parliamentarians, it was finally adopted by the European Parliament in 2019. This text makes it possible to counterbalance the rules laid down by the powerful tech giants, GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft), in defence of creators. A European cultural exception is therefore possible.

Moreover, European support for the cultural sector should not be limited to Creative Europe. The sector also benefits from structural funds that help countries in economic difficulty. This is how many cultural facilities in eastern European states, paradoxically now the most Europhobic, were financed with funds from Brussels. By combining structural funds and Creative Europe, European support for culture in the previous budget was estimated at around 10 billion euros.

Nonetheless, this sum does not allow culture to develop into a more ambitious European competence. For this reason, in his essay, “And what if we started over, beginning with culture? In support of European sovereignty” (ed. Du Seuil), Jean-Noël Tronc, President of Sacem and one of the major architects of the copyright directive, calls for the rebuilding of a new cultural Europe. Willy Brandt, a former German Chancellor and staunch European, stressed that culture was the third pillar of international relations, behind political strategy and the economy.

While Xi Jinping‘s China is turning cultural diplomacy into a central weapon of its soft power, Europe cannot afford to remain divided on this topic. Brexit presents numerous drawbacks for the EU, not least the loss of an important funder for Creative Europe, since each member state participates in proportion to its budget. But this Great British stumbling block could also be a cornerstone used to reconstruct a Europe of culture around a common economic model. Because for the cultural sector, as for many other areas, the consequences of the pandemic will be felt well beyond the emergency funding phase. Could Europe seize this historic opportunity to implement a Keynesian policy for culture? This is a sector for which a return to austerity would be a tragedy.

About the Author

Antoine Pecqueur is a journalist specializing in cultural economics. He graduated from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Lyon. He is also a bassoonist in various orchestras: Les Siècles, La Chambre philharmonique, Anima Eterna, Linea…

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