European culture is under threat from the debt crisis



From British libraries to Portuguese film studios and Greek museums, government funding cuts have hit cultural institutions across Europe.

However, the cultural and creative sector is increasingly important to the European Union’s economy, employing 8.5 million people across the 27-nation bloc.

With many of its traditional industries squeezed by competition from emerging economies and unemployment running at record levels, areas where Europe still has competitive edge such as design, heritage, music, film and television could help boost EU’s battered economy.

In the midst of the government cutbacks, the European Commission on Wednesday approved proposals to boost to support the cultural and creative industries.

"These sectors are very important for the European Union," said Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner for education and culture as she announced the new initiative.

"They account for about 3.3 to 4.5 per cent of GDP, they produce important spill-over effects such as innovation, skills development and urban regeneration."

The new strategy aims improve access to private financing and export guarantees for small creative companies, provide support for cross-border film distribution and develop the development of digital publishing.

Other measures foresee improved protection for intellectual property rights and increased vocational training.

The Commission proposed setting up a €1.8 billion "Creative Europe" fund as part of the EU’s seven-year funding period due to start in 2014.

But the EU executive body is already facing fierce resistance from some member governments let by Germany and Britain who want to cut the bloc’s overall spending proposals.

Even if approved, the Commission’s strategy is unlikely to have much short-term impact on the crisis in the arts as governments pursuing austerity programmes continue to slash funding for the arts.

In Spain this summer, a wave of street protests by artists failed to persuade the conservative government to drop a plan to increase taxes on tickets for cultural events from 8 to 21 percent. Coming on top of cuts in subsidies, Spanish artists fear the taxes could be a death blow to many entertainment venues with the loss of thousands of jobs.

"This price increase will add to the effects of the crisis and hold back progress in the cultural sector which is key for this country," Spanish Society for Authors and Composers (SGAE) said in an Aug. 29 statement. "It will also add to cracks in our social fabric by denying access to culture for poorer families."

Workers at Rome’s Cinecittà have been striking since the summer to save the famed film studios which were privatised in the 1990s and are facing heavy losses blamed in part on a lack of state support and competition from cut price international rivals.

Despite such problems, the cultural sector has resisted the impact of the economic crisis better than other areas.

According to EU data, more Europeans work in the creative sector than in mining, financial services, public administration, or the water and power industries.

The sector is also seen as an important catalyst in promoting innovation that can have a wider impact on other sectors such as tourism, manufacturing, education and urban planning.

Europe is however facing growing competition in the cultural field, from countries such as China, South Korea and India which could erode its creative edge.

While European arts funding is nose-diving, Chinese public investment in culture has grown 23 percent a year since 2007 and it’s current five-year plan aims to more than double the sector’s share of GDP to up to 6 percent by 2015.