World Trade and Culture

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Arriving here from the homepage, you might expect something different in focus. In fact, to watch cultural diversity one needs bifocal glasses (at least). At the outset, years ago, the expression more or less covered the issue that was also associated at that time to the notion of l'exception culturelle, the concern for imbalances of global exchange and circulation of cultural goods and services, affecting economic interests on the one hand and referring to a symbolic battle field of cultural influences on the other. When Unesco entered this stage, the term was therefore closely linked to the position of culture in world trade. Lately, the semantic field of term has shifted towards the primary meaning of the two words, that is towards artistic variety, multiculturalism etc, almost to the point of being interchangeable with intercultural dialogue.

BO has been more involved in the observation of the first meaning of cultural diversity (see the title of this chapter) than the second, where - among others - the Compendium project excels.

Thus the issue is the role of culture within international commerce: How is the Unesco convention on the diversity of cultural expression implemented? What is at stake in the negotiations over the renewal of the general agreements of the World Trade Organisation?

What is, or should be done in this context in our region? By action we mean one of the following:

  • The interpretation of this complex issue to the decision-makers in any part of east-central Europe, bearing in mind the interests of culture.
  • The same, directed to the wider public, especially those in the cultural field, with the aim to sensitise them towards the issue.
  • The articulation of the particular interests of the countries of the region, which could eventually be represented jointly in the international arena.

BO attended an early meeting in Paris in 1999, entitled Culture: a form of merchandise like no other? That conference came about at the joint initiative of the Canadian and French governments, long-time champions of an exceptional treatment given to culture within international trade agreements. The Canadians have been particularly active in searching the ways of reconciling the opposing interests of dynamic expansion of world trade (with all its positive effects) and the protection of national cultures; they have repeatedly raised the question if another "instrument" like the Florence (Lake Success) Agreement on the importing of cultural goods can be created. The answers, if any, have been cautious and ambiguous.

In the following year, BO attended another meeting in Warsaw. Still in 2000, within the frames of the Mosaic project of the Council of Europe, a meeting was dedicated to the topic in Zagreb.

Seven years later, the Round Table of Circle, held in December 2006 in Helsinki dealt with this issue in a very substantial and professional manner.

In April 2007,  Nearly seven years later, BO participated in a major conference dedicated to the subject in Essen.  

Our experience tells us that in the eastern half of the continent the communication gap between people "in culture" and the technocratic decision-makers is wider than in the west. Chances that the members of negotiating delegations at world trade talks will conscientiously consult the representatives of culture, are smaller in a country in transition than in an established market society. Also the other way round: ministries of culture rarely put the issue on their agenda in our region. What happens then? The delegations at WTO meetings keep the overall interests of their countries in mind: how to promote exports, how to ensure international aid and credit, how to please investors etc, without thinking of the specific nature of cultural goods and services.

BO has dealt with various aspects of the issue in the monthly newsletters. These can be consulted by typing "cultural diversity" into the search box.