EU lawmakers back French push to limit U.S. trade talks

Thu May 23, 2013 9:47am EDT

* France pushing to exempt culture from talks with US

* EU parliament has advisory role, veto over final deal

By Claire Davenport and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS, May 23 (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers voted on Thursday to limit the scope of a proposed free-trade deal between Europe and the United States, backing French demands to leave out culture and potentially irritating Washington.

The European Parliament, which can veto EU trade accords, voted 460 in favour and 105 against with 28 abstentions to limit Brussels' room for manoeuvre in talks on a deal that would encompass almost half the world's economic output.

"It is crucial not to consider culture as a pure commodity," said Helga Truepel, a member of the parliament from the German Greens party.

Although non-binding, the parliament's vote provides support for French demands to exclude the cultural sector from a deal. It will likely establish the parameters of the EU's negotiating mandate, which will be finalised on June 14.

EU-U.S. negotiations are expected to start in July and to take two years.

Washington and Brussels say the broadest deal possible is the best way to unleash billions of dollars in new business, and EU trade chief Karel De Gucht told lawmakers in the parliament on Wednesday that he needs flexibility to win U.S. concessions.

U.S. lawmakers say they will not support a deal unless it tears down barriers that have long blocked U.S. exports. One U.S. official said the talks risked "death by a thousand cuts" if a policy of tit-for-tat exemptions were to take over.

France's Trade Minister Nicole Bricq welcomed the European Parliament's vote but said she wanted to see public procurement for defence contracts exempted too, something De Gucht wants to include in the talks.

De Gucht and EU ministers cannot ignore the European Parliament. Last year an overwhelming majority of its lawmakers vetoed ACTA, an international trade agreement intended to clamp down on fake goods and illegal Internet downloading.

France, Europe's second largest economy, has threatened to block the start of U.S. talks unless it retains a "cultural exception" that allows the government to limit foreign programmes on French airwaves and to subsidise French films.

French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti sent a letter to EU lawmakers on Wednesday calling on them to back exempting culture from the talks, and said France has the support of other EU member states.

France's support for a transatlantic deal is crucial. A British push for an EU-U.S. trade agreement collapsed in the 1990s in the face of French resistance.

Creative industries in other European countries have also lobbied against including culture in trade negotiations, fearing that a deal would allow U.S. filmmakers to take advantage of shrinking European cultural subsidies, for example.

"We have fought laboriously to create humane working conditions for our writers, but that is now in peril," said Jochen Greve, a screenwriter for the German TV show Tatort.

De Gucht supports leaving cultural subsidies out of any pact. He wants to leave room for talks on digital technology but the French and lobbyists in the creative sector say this could still unfairly benefit American companies. (Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Paris; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Sonya Hepinstall)

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