Europe’s cultural and heritage industries under threat

The Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine have exposed and exacerbated the vulnerabilities of small, local producers in Europe, which have been less resilient to the ensuing economic devastation than large corporations. Yet, in disrupting global supply chains, these shocks have also revealed the vital importance of local industries and increased public demand for their products.

This has been particularly true for Europe’s cultural and heritage sectors, namely food, music and film, which share an ability to preserve a nation’s culture while expressing it in a universal way that transcends borders, enriching the broader European culture. This unique combination of cultural diversity and shared European identity has always been one of the EU’s greatest strengths, even if a growing far-right movement has cynically weaponised cultural identity in recent years.

The real threat to cultural diversity in Europe is the relentless homogenising force of multinational corporations. To counter this cultural erosion, the EU must implement strong measures to promote local producers across the continent.

Nutri-score boosting food corporations

Europe’s rich and diverse culinary heritage is perhaps its most universally valued, yet the local food producers at its heart are gravely endangered by misguided healthy food policy that plays into the hands of industry giants. The EU is set to make a year-end decision on a bloc-wide Front-of-Package (FOP) labelling system – which provide supermarket shoppers with information on nutritional value – but the French-backed frontrunner, Nutri-Score, completely misses the mark.

In a new study, researchers conclude that Nutri-Score – which grades a product’s healthiness using a simplistic A-to-E, green-to-red system – can help counter the “health halo” effect created by misleading sugar messaging on packages. The irony that both Nutri-Score and these sugar claims mislead consumers on healthiness is seemingly lost on these researchers. As the Italian Competition Authority has ruled, Nutri-Score risks giving shoppers the false impression that “green A” products can be consumed in large quantities without undermining health, which is why it recently banned Nutri-Score in Italian supermarkets.

The fundamental issue is Nutri-Score’s scientifically-dubious algorithm, which penalises local heritage foods – including Italian parma ham, French Roquefort cheese and Greek olive oil – based on their sodium and fat content per absurdly large 100g/ml serving, while ironically giving high marks to certain ultra-processed foods – such as Nesquick cereal and Coca-Cola – produced by multinationals that may simply adjust their formulas to boost scores. Local, single-ingredient food producers are naturally unable to do so, leaving them at a significant economic disadvantage that jeopardises long-term culinary diversity in Europe.

Multinationals freezing out independent music sector

Like food, music is a vital pillar of European culture that supports cultural diversity and brings people together, but whose local producers struggle in a market increasingly dominated by multinational corporations.

While exacerbated by the pandemic, overconcentration in Europe’s music industry has long threatened its diversity, a trend also accelerated by the rise of digital streaming platforms. In the record business, three major labels – Universal, Sony and Warner – control roughly 80% of the market. While streaming platforms theoretically provide an accessible outlet for emerging artists to reach new audiences, their skewed payment models and algorithms enable major label artists to dominate streaming revenues.

The story is much the same for the live music sector, with giant global acts – primarily from the US and UK – eating up increasingly large chunks of venue and music festival budgets. What’s more, multinational concert promoters have significantly increased investment in Europe and started forcing venues to choose from major label artists in their “packages,” effectively freezing out smaller acts.The EU has launched a range of initiatives under the Commission’s Music Moves Europe framework to address these market failures and promote diversity. For example, its Liveurope platform gives venues a bonus for booking up-and-coming artists from Europe, while the Live Style Europe project provides training to regional industry actors to help them adapt to changes in the live sector. Through its JUMP accelerator, the EU supports a wide range of European music start-ups, such as WARM, whose radio-monitoring services allow European bands to track their global airplay and better target communications.

US, UK bombarding EU audio-visual market

Film and TV have a unique capacity of visually communicating lesser-known cultures on a global scale, yet the diversity of Europe’s market has been threatened for decades by the dominance of overseas productions. In 2016, only 12 countries in the EU had a domestic film make it in their box office top five, and more recently, digital streaming giants such as Netflix have created an opportunity for the US, as well as the UK, to strengthen their market position.

However, EU and national governments, viewing this Anglo-American force as a “threat to Europe’s cultural diversity,” have bolstered their response in recent years to promote local industries. In 2018, the EU passed legislation requiring that European-produced films and TV shows comprise at least 30% of streaming platform content, and that these platforms contribute funding for European productions. The tide may be beginning to turn, with Amazon bolstering its European production hubs in response to growing demand for local content.

Given the UK’s departure from the EU – and presumably the bloc’s quota system – smaller industries that have shown promise in recent years, such as Estonia’s, now have the opportunity to boost production and exposure. The more-established Italy has already expressed its intention to capitalise on Brexit, committing €300 million of its EU Recovery Fund share towards local film production. Other member states should follow this strong example to help build a dynamic, culturally diverse European film industry.

External shocks in Europe have accelerated long-standing threats to the continent’s cultural diversity, devastating the local producers promoting European culture in the face of ever-expanding multinationals. Encouragingly, glimmers of hope are emerging, with new opportunities arising from growing demand for local products. But to fully capitalise on this trend, the EU will need to ensure its funding and policy measures help local cultural industries across the continent thrive.

Image: Christiaan Colen/Flickr

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