Don’t gamble with culture

Article published on March 16, 2007
Article published on March 16, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions comes into effect on March 18. But only 12 of the EU 25 have ratified it

According to UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation), over fifty percent of the 6, 000 languages currently spoken around the world are in danger of extinction. It has taken more than 60 years to pass since UNESCO was created in 1945 for the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions to be written. It comes into effect on March 18 2007, but only 37 countries have as far ratified it. Of those, only 14 of them are in Europe: the UK, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands, amongst others, have not.

The Institute of Statistics (UNESCO) asserts that three countries (USA, UK and China) are responsible for 40% of the World’s culture, while the sum total of two continents together (Latin-America and Africa) is only 4%. In the last 10 years, the international trade in cultural 'goods' has doubled, in an exponential as well as unequal way. Fewer countries have more and more control of the markets. With each day that passes it seems that a Russian has the same tastes as an American, while in Barcelona, everyone lives near a Japanese restaurant, but most cinemas don’t show Catalan films.

The cultural exception

It is the first time that a cultural accord has provoked such an intense debate. On the one hand there is the ‘liberal’ stance of countries such as the US, Japan or the UK. They defend their posture that culture is a commodity like any other, such as meat or cars, which needs no protection and should be open to free market forces. On the other, the traditionalists, headed by France and Canada, talk of the cultural exception and believe that intervention by the state to correct international distortions of market economy is legitimate, especially in the case of culture.

It was in relation to this, and as part of the basis of the GATT Agreement over material of a cultural nature that the European Union, with France in the front-line, raised the question of the ‘cultural exception’ in 1993, and confronted the US over it. The exceptionists defend the cultural industry of each country as opposed to commercial superproductions, such as those that emerge from Hollywood; their opinion is that the world market is a false free market, dominated by a handful of multinational companies, with the US as leaders.

In this new context, it is becoming apparent that the exception represents regional minorities’ need to assert and affirm their identity. The US is beginning to take note, showing that it is possible to reconcile the free market, protectionism and diversity (in the audiovisual field, Television without Frontiers and the programmes from MEDIA are witness to this new direction).

Question of philosophy or economics?

But can the opening up of free trade be reconciled with the question of cultural diversity? In its document, UNESCO seems to say yes: 'Cultural activities, goods and services have both an economic and a cultural nature, because they convey identities, values and meanings, and must therefore not be treated as solely having commercial value,' and 'cultural diversity is strengthened by the free flow of ideas.'

Somewhere between the liberal’s standpoint and the traditionalist’s is Josep Ramoneda, philosopher and director of the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona. (CCCB). He argues that the 'United States has to favour displays of cultural diversity, but there are cosmopolitan cultural forces that override everything and obstacles cannot be put in the way of change. Fortunately, the communication of ideas around the world is unstoppable, and although there is the danger of the survival of the fittest, the risk of trying to stop such progress would be much greater, creating impossible ghettos. Culture is one, universal and rises above national realities.'

José Maria O’Kean, professor of Economics at the Pablo Olavide University in Seville is less optimistic and more pragmatic: 'There is no supranational power which regulates the mistakes made in the global marketplace. Organisms such as UNESCO lay down rules which states sign up to but which they then do not follow. Who could possibly be against the culture of peoples? No-one. But I’m very sceptical: English is the predominant language, and although other languages have to be respected I don’t know if it makes sense to teach a child languages that will not serve them as we as English would, for the sake of 'culture'.'

In whose interest is the simplification of cultures, languages and ideas? Do we really want another Tower of Babel, where we all speak the same language with the sole aim of reaching a marketplace heaven? Cultures and identities are stake. The promotion of dialogue, equality, solidarity and cultural cooperation stand out among the objectives of this latest UNESCO Convention. Europe has a great opportunity to strengthen the links between its member states, but would also have to work with countries which have not ratified the Convention, and be aware of the importance of a Europe that is at once united and plural.

Translation to the Spanish by: Maria Gené Gil