Artists and their heirs to get rights to royalties if EU overules Britain

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BRITAIN COULD lose its long-running battle to prevent new European rules that give living artists a long-term stake in the resale rights of their works.

EU ministers are expected to override UK objections at a crunch meeting of European ministers today.

The controversial measure has been fiercely opposed by the Government on the grounds that it would cost up to 8,500 jobs in London's lucrative art market.

But last night the European Commission said that it may have enough support to push through the proposed directive with a qualified majority of member states.

One official said the decision was "on a knife-edge" with the vote of one country likely to decide the outcome.

Under the measure, royalties would go to living artists or to their estates for up to 70 years after their deaths, and Brussels argues that 250,000 people throughout the EU would benefit.

The new law would give a sliding scale of royalties, from 4 per cent on sales worth up to pounds 32,000, to just 0.25 per cent on the portion of the sale price of a work which exceeds pounds 320,000.

Resale rights are already provided in 50 countries worldwide as well as in 11 EU member states, with only Britain, Ireland, Austria and Holland out of step.

But Britain argues that it would be hit hard because of the size of the UK art market and the prospect that business would move from Britain to non-EU countries to avoid the levy.

Last night a spokesman for the European Commission said he was "hopeful of winning an agreement" at today's meeting of internal market ministers.

The Government said its opposition to the measure, known as droit de suite, remained unchanged and up to 8,500 jobs were at risk in the London art market.

The move has been passionately opposed by Britain for four years, with Tory and Labour governments warning the new levy will drive auction house business in works of art out of the EU to avoid the extra payments.

But with a majority of member states already recognising artists' rights, the Brussels Commission is determined to apply the payments across the board, including the British art market, by far the biggest in Europe.

The royalty payments would provide new income for about 250,000 artists, according to the Commission.

And EU officials insist the new directive would boost Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" initiative by rewarding artists with a "small but fair" share in their ongoing success.

"Why should Damien Hirst, David Hockney or Tracey Emin be treated any differently from the Spice Girls or Elton John?" said a Commission spokesman.

Last night the position of Denmark looked like it might be decisive. It is part of the blocking minority although it has no direct interest in the measure, and the Finnish presidency was said to be pressing hard to reach an agreement.

Eleven of the 15 EU member states already have resale rights, although the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland and the UK do not.

The directive would harmonise the type of works covered to include pictures, collages, paintings, drawings, engravings, prints, lithographs, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and photographic works.