How exactly is cultural protectionism not nationalism?

The European Union wants to implement a framework that would incentivize the production of movies and music inside the EU at the expense of American creations. For a political project that wants itself to be an alternative to the nation-state mentality, this is surely a nationalistic suggestion.

Your Playlist Isn’t European Enough

A year ago, EU council ministers backed the idea of requiring audiovisual content providers to include at least 30 percent of European productions on their platforms. This means that providers such as Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, or Netflix will have to include content that the EU deems “European” enough. Whatever that means. Specifics as to how European a movie needs to be in order to qualify for the said quota, are currently still unknown. EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said, “our cultural sector will have a more prominent place in on-demand catalogues—a significant and positive change for European creators and authors.”

In short, this means that there is too much Stranger Things from the U.S and not enough strange things from southern Bavaria. The European Union wants to change that.

Spain’s minister for culture thought that this project wasn’t ambitious enough: “This is a crucial advancement, which should also include social networks that offer audiovisual content, independent of the broadcasting format.” That proposal, fortunately, wasn’t included, but other burdens will be placed on the entertainment industry.

The EU wants to enable countries to require member states to subsidize entrepreneurship in the cultural sector at the expense of large studios. This means, for instance, that if HBO broadcasts in Europe, it will have to pay a fee to fund European TV-show and movie productions, even though it decided to never accept submissions from that end in the first place. Asking companies to actively fund their competition, or to financially support projects they didn’t deem valuable from the start, is seriously distorting market forces. What is the supposed goal here? “If they aren’t creative, we’ll make them creative”?

“It’s Only Nationalism If They Do It”

Let’s just imagine for a minute that this proposal had come out of the party bureau of Marine Le Pen, or any other far-right leader in Europe. Nationalists could say that “we need to protect our entertainment industry from Americanization or from competition from Africa and Asia,” and EU officials would scream “nationalism” in horror, condemning the proposals on the ground of nativism. And yet, this is exactly what the proposed measures are achieving. While the intention might very well be to prevent Hollywood to monopolize the attention in European living rooms, the rules equally discriminate against producers from Seoul or Cape Town.

The bottom line is this: European movies don’t fail to get picked up by Netflix because they aren’t American, but because they are terrible. The only European movies that do well are those which either deal in phenomenal stereotypes, like Amélie, or if they pick up historical events, played in authentic locations and with authentic people (no Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg, please). Then again, these films are only considered successful because they did well in the U.S box office. But in reality, these films would not survive in a purely European market. Europe produces dreadful soap operas and sorry comedies, the only good aspects of which are those that were ripped off from American cinema. The same goes for music; Europe is not up to the game, given its linguistic diversity: there is only so much internationally popular music that can come out of non-English-speaking countries.

This doesn’t imply that creativity could not spike all of a sudden, but rather that no quota, and no EU commissioner, will create any more of it. In fact, quite the opposite is the case: the nationalistic quotas will incentivize the confident yet untalented to produce mediocre content, without contributing anything of value to Europe and its creators. No great artist has ever come out of a government-funded culture programme.


This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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