The construction of national cultures through state aid regimes: a revisiting of national borders in the context of cultural policies in the European Union

EU cultural tests create the potential for barriers, driving cultural producers to seek a form of national culture—and a form of European-ness—which is sufficient to pass both as European and as not.

Authors: Maria O’Brien (Queen’s University Belfast) and Nick Webber (Birmingham City University)

Over the last few years, state aid regimes have been in the news a lot, due to the increasingly fragmented nature of Western trade policy. The European Union’s position on state aid is robust, and has been an important feature of its trade negotiations, with the UK over Brexit amongst others. State aid within the EU is tightly regulated, and Article 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union proscribes state aid ‘which distorts or threatens to distort competition […] in so far as it affects trade between Member States.’ 

The same Article does, however, identify provisions under which state aid is ‘compatible with the internal market’. One of these covers ‘aid to promote culture and heritage conservation.’ Aid granted under this provision is generally dispensed through tax relief or direct grants, underpinned by mechanisms which ensure that this relief is provided on cultural or heritage grounds. In many cases, this mechanism is a ‘cultural test’: a set of criteria which must be met for a company, activity or product to receive support. 

Creating and applying such tests imposes both explicit (written criteria) and implicit (interpretative judgements) frames on the identification of national culture. We might think of this as ‘implicit’ cultural policy-making (Throsby), given that the desire for relief precedes the test. So each cultural test, and indeed each act of cultural testing, invites the questions that lie at the heart of this research. Do these tests present progressive or celebratory conceptions of national culture or narrowly conservative ones? Can we see, through the range and variety of tests, a coherent ‘European’ perspective on culture, and where is the ‘national’ in this? What obstacles and affordances do these tests present to sharing arts, culture and heritage, both within the EU and beyond it? 

In attempting answers to these, we recognise that culturally-motivated state aid creates tensions between conceptions of culture and a range of business interests, including company revenues, locations and workforce. Cultural grants and tax reliefs are valuable (the Commission estimates the film sector receives €1.5 billion of support per year) and there is a visible attempt to understand ‘culture’ in a way that offers competitive advantage. For example, the Cultural Test for Film, proposed by the UK in 2005, suggested that tax relief be granted to film productions simply because they were made in the UK by British workers.

Rejecting this premise in 2006, the European Commission asked for more culture in the cultural test—which manifested in substantial growth in attention to aspects of national ‘cultural contribution’ and ‘cultural content’, and a reduction in attention to matters of location and staff (Magor and Schlesinger 315–316). Similarly, the Czech Film Commission’s kulturní test requires specific attention to ‘cultural criteria’ (kulturní kritéria), although here the bulk of points awarded are for production (výrobní) criteria. However, these approaches are not universal. In Belgium, Screen Flanders present a cultural test which focuses almost entirely on cultural criteria, barring a single criterion concerned with residency of the director or scriptwriter.

The influence of the European Union, European Commission, and related structures on these tests can also be seen in other ways, which speak to our question about a ‘European’ perspective on culture. Although we can understand cultural tests as ‘national’ interventions in cultural policy, there is in each case a ‘Europeanising’ influence on what is identified as appropriate for support. Thus, the current British film test (2014) specifies that ‘cultural content’ and ‘cultural practitioners’ (workers) might be British, but might also be drawn from any other EEA state. Screen Flanders allows the script and thematic elements of the production to include EEA and EFTA dimensions, and the director or scriptwriter to live within these regions. The Czech kulturní test simply refers to Czech or European (české nebo evropské) culture, values, etc.—and notably, the English language version of that test, appearing on the Czech Film Commission website, mentions only European dimensions to the cultural criteria—Czechness appears here only in terms of production.

That these are European cultural tests, at least in part, is thus embedded throughout their language; on a par with national cultural in many instances, and indeed echoed in supportive regional treatment in the Screen Flanders test (‘in Flanders, in Belgium, in another member state of the European Economic Area or in a member state of the European Free Trade Association’). Thus, they act to bring a European—transnational—voice into the discourse of national (and regional) culture when testing takes place. But also, through that mechanism, they promote an equivalence between different national discourses as well. An eligible film might be made in Britain, for example, but set in Czechia, and focus on a Belgian family. Under the British cultural test—which is, as the test website indicates, about ‘qualifying your film as British’—such a film would arguably be no less ‘British’ than an Ealing Comedy.

We might see these tests, then, as challenging parochial and conservative conceptions of national culture, and indeed of ‘European’ culture more broadly. Yet while there are references to progressive ideas—diversity in the British test, tolerance in the Czech test— there are also gestures towards more traditional perspectives on culture. Both the Czech Film Commission and Screen Flanders tests support productions which adapt or are inspired by other creative works recognised for their ‘cultural interest’ (SF) or ‘cultural value’ (CFC). In addition, economised variants of cultural tests, such as the Irish cultural test, also refer broadly to creativity and culture; that is, we contend, not at odds with the increasingly marketised approach of the Commission towards audiovisual policy (Schlesinger).

These criteria remind us that the text is not the only space in which conceptions of culture are constructed and asserted through cultural tests. Their application is an act of cultural intermediation (Bourdieu), in which decisions are made about what ‘counts’ as culture, even as the criteria embed assumptions about what culture might be. Administered within national contexts, cultural tests invite cultural testers to make situated, local judgements about cultural significance which have implications for the relationship between national and European conceptions of culture. 

It is apparent that cultural tests offer many affordances for the sharing within the EU of cultural productions and, importantly, cultural producers. They support cross-EU (EEA/EFTA) collaborations, and the premise that one nation’s cultural themes and concerns might be shared by others. However, to foreground any given aspect of a member state’s national culture invites problems for broader circulation. Beyond the basic differences between regulatory regimes which already create barriers to circulation even within the EU—requiring content cuts, or age-based access criteria—the addition of culturally-specific content, which cultural tests would seem to require, creates barriers to access for audiences in different cultural contexts. A greater weight of cultural specificity (cultural ‘odor’: Iwabuchi 57) may be attractive to certain audience demographics, and may even be the basis of a brand. Yet it can also significantly increase localisation costs for the global market. Thus EU cultural tests create the potential for barriers, driving cultural producers to seek a form of national culture—and a form of European-ness—which is sufficient to pass both as European and as not.


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