US `blackmailed' Brussels over TV quotas

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From Sarah Helm

in Brussels

Washington has pressured the European Union into delaying the revision of television quota measures, aimed at curbing the growing domination of the US entertainment industry, according to European officials and diplomats. The Americans have warned the EU that the measures would undermine a conference to be hosted by the European Commission in Brussels on new multi-media technology, to be attended by the G7 group of leading industrial nations.

The conference will be used by the Commission to assert its role on the world stage. A boycott by the US, represented by Vice-President Al Gore, would be embarrassing. This week the EU put off a decision on the television quota debate.

A US spokesman in Brussels denied that pressure was exerted, saying the US saw the debate over European media industry as an internal affair. The EU Commissioners say they were simply divided on the issue and that this caused the delay.

However, according to diplomats, close aides of Mr Gore warned several EU governments to hold off proposed new television quota restrictions , or risk "interference" with the conference. The warnings were seenas a threat that Mr Gore might stay away.

A senior EU official said: "It was an American victory - they got the Europeans to do what they wanted. It is clear to me that they were saying they may boycott the conference if the issue was not delayed."

The US pressure has embarrassed France, holder of the EU presidency, which has led the calls for tighter television quotas.

"The Commission does not think it is independent so it doesn't act as if it is independent. Americans are behaving as if Europe was the 52nd state," one diplomat said.

Britain dislikes quotas and is being taken to the European Court for failing to implement directives. Because of slack British regulations, television giants have used Britain as a base from which to broadcast US products to Europe. Apart from Rupert Murdoch's Sky channels, several companies beam mainly American programmes, dubbed into European languages, to Scandinavia and parts of Western Europe.

The US lobbying highlights the politics behind the battle for control of Europe's airwaves in the multi-media market. Film and television material are now America's second biggest export after aeronautics. In1993 the US exported $4.1bn (£2.7bn) worth of audio visual materials to Europe, while Europe exported $336m worth to the US, making a trade deficit in this industry of $3.7bn.

"This shows that the single market is working for the US,"a European Commission official said.

When the EU first struggled to agree on a new directive on television before Christmas, there was also strong evidence of US pressure to unsettle the EU, with threats to undermine the success of the G7 conference.

A confidential memorandum by the Motion Picture Association of America, the powerful Hollywood lobby, spoke of the need to solicit the help of Stuart Eizenstat, the US ambassador to the EU.

The document says that the ambassador "might note that the outcome of the current changes could pose a serious problems for the G7 summit".

Fear that Europe's film and media industry could be obliterated by Hollywood is stirring a bitter debate about whether Europeans have the right to protect their culture and entertainment industry.

Concern has mounted as US domination of Europe's television and film industry has grown. Now, say European lobbyists, the US is ready to seize all the profits from the rapidly expanding multi-media market at the expense of Europe. The capability of this new market will be displayed at the conference in Brussels. The fears are being addressed within the EU, but member states are at odds over the right response.

The first serious European attempt to protect its television and film industry was taken in 1989 when a Television Without Frontiers directive was passed by the European Community.

The directive required member states to ensure television stations licensed to broadcast from their territory show at least 50 per cent European-produced programmes, excluding sport and news. The US was put on alert, and Ronald Reagan, then US president, was believed to have pressed Europe to weaken the directive by calling Margaret Thatcher, then British prime minister. Mrs Thatcher insisted that the EU quota could only be implemented "where practicable".

The US has since lobbied intensely for the quotas to be abolished altogether, with organisations such as the Movie Picture Association of America using their weight with the US government to squeeze the EU. Britain has increasingly sided with the US, to the anger of European Commission officials and the French, who most fear the loss of their cultural identity.