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PERSPECTIVE ON TRADE : Europe Draws an Electronic Curtain : Barriers to U.S. films, TV to protect culture cast an ominous shadow on the emerging global information highway.

January 14, 1994|DIANA LADY DOUGAN | Diana Lady Dougan, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, oversaw international communications policy in the Reagan Administration.

After seven tortuous years, Congress has four months to sort through the pile of compromises and issues shoved under the rug in reaching the 11th-hour closure on the Uruguay Round of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). Sticky sectors such as agriculture, textiles and financial services involving some of Congress' own pet subsidies and trade barriers can be tidied up relatively quickly with interpretations that suit the national interest. But no amount of housekeeping is going to smooth over the lump of audio-visual issues--movies, television, popular music--that the Europeans exempted from the most liberalizing trade agreement in history.

The Clinton Administration was right not to settle for a bad compromise in what the Department of Commerce calculates as America's second-largest net export earner. But neither the Administration nor Congress can afford to let Brussels sweep the so-called audio-visual issues under the trade carpet for very long.

If Europe's audio-visual policies were a simple matter of preserving "culture" or even subsidizing it, few would begrudge their behavior. Virtually every nation, including the United States, uses government funds to promote or preserve elements of culture through the audio-visual arts. However, under the terms of the European Union's (formerly the European Community) broadcast directive, countries are required to implement a timetable for policing and restricting "where practicable" the showing of programs with less than a majority "European content" in production, talent or locations. This leaves the EU bureaucrats in Brussels having to defend an Italian clone of "Wheel of Fortune" as preserving European culture while they block "Amadeus" as part of the Hollywood cultural invasion. The reasoning? Despite the clearly European focus of the award-winning fantasy about Mozart, its funding was not primarily European.

Until recently, only the French were aggressive enforcers of the restrictions on U.S. entertainment. Indeed, the millions of francs they fined the very popular independent TV channel (Canal Cinq) for showing too many American programs was in large measure the reason for its sudden demise. On the heels of the GATT agreement, France has now ordered that 40% of the music aired on French radio stations be French in origin, the other 60% European. So much for Cole Porter. . . .

Even less restrictive countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany are scrambling to demonstrate that they are taking specific actions to restrict U.S. programming in preparation for October's five-year review of implementation of the 1989 broadcast directive.

The long-term stakes in audio-visual policies are much higher than the very considerable trade interests of our television, film and record industries.

First of all, technical advances in digitalization and signal compression are fast turning film, video and sound into the "software" that feeds not only traditional TV and movie fare but also the exploding markets in computer, telecommunication, cable and satellite industries--industries that are becoming critical conduits to competitiveness in developing as well as developed countries. If cultural sovereignty can be used by governments to restrict trade in entertainment, this same principle can be used to restrict and therefore manage information in all its forms. To limit their tradability under the guise of cultural sovereignty casts a potentially long shadow over global free trade extending far beyond America's own economic self-interest.

Perhaps more important in the long run than multi-industry economic stakes are the basic political principles involved. The citizens of Europe and others whose governments attempt to restrict access to audio-visual services are being denied basic rights and freedom of choice. Indeed, the EU broadcast directive is in direct violation of basic tenets adopted by all member countries in the founding days of the United Nations (and later reaffirmed in the Convention of Europe). Article 19 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights not only accepts the basic human "right to freedom of opinion and expression" but explicitly states: "This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."

Most citizens of Europe undoubtedly would recoil at the thought that they have allowed their governments to promote what is tantamount to economic "jamming." Unlike the Soviet electronic jamming of the Cold War era, which attempted to block news and information broadcast from the West, the Europeans are "jamming" the airwaves with trade and regulatory restrictions.

With more than 30 countries in other parts of the world agreeing to some form of liberalization in audio-visual trade, even the powerful Hollywood lobby is likely to support congressional approval despite the failure in reaching agreement with Europe. But given the Clinton Administration's avowed commitment to promoting both human rights and economic competitiveness, it cannot afford to merely come home and declare victory. It must commence a strategy that will engage the governments of Europe in recognizing that the rights of their citizens to information and ideas are as precious as any trade agreement in advancing global prosperity and growth.

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