IV EU External Policies and Culture

The European Union, the World Trade Organization and Cultural Diversity

Mira Burri


The increased exchange of goods, services, peoples and ideas across borders, intrinsic to globalisation, has had many and multifaceted effects. Those affecting culture are amongst the most controversial. The 'trade and culture' quandary could indeed be phrased more revealingly as 'trade versus culture'. It is an area of contestation that emerged in the forum of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its institutional predecessor, the General agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT). The debate became particularly heated during the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations (1986-1994). The European Union (EU or the Union) and its member states played a key role in this battle, which almost turned into a stumbling block for the entire negotiations and ultimately had a strong impact on the design of the WTO Agreements, especially the rules on services.

This chapter maps these developments and the positions of the EU and its member states, which were not always coherent. It also looks at the actual results of the trade versus culture contestation - that is, the rules on trade in goods and services in the WTO and how they reflect the need for more policy space in matters of cultural policy, which the EU so ardently pressed for. The chapter further analyses the evolution of both the international trade regulation and the discourse on cultural policy. This discourse has in fact undergone a major transformation in the last two decades, as it has moved from the exception culturelle rhetoric, which dominated the Uruguay trade talks, towards a more positive but also more proactive agenda under the slogan of cultural diversity. The EU has been a major driver of this transformation, which has succeeded in mobilising the international community and ultimately led to the adoption of the 2005 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions (Convention on Cultural Diversity or the Convention) (UNESCO, 2005). The chapter concludes with an appraisal of the current state of the debate, situating it in the broader picture of contemporary global governance.

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