The EU’s move to restrict British TV reveals its closed-minded insecurity

Rather than pretending that “cultural diversity” is threatened by UK TV, the EU should learn from Britain’s success.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Remember in the midst of the Tony Blair era when the new political divide was open vs closed? Left and right were dead; class was out of fashion; “liberal” had been Americanised beyond meaning  so now we were all open or closed.

The open mindset is optimistic, confident, broad-minded, forward-looking and seeking opportunity. Closed, in contrast, is pessimistic, frightened, narrow-minded, retrospective and seeking security. 

Years after Blair, the concept was enthusiastically applied to the EU referendum and how the two sides were defined. Continued membership stood for openness, and Brexit meant being closed. The divide caught on.

However, it is a mistake to assume that a catchy idea must automatically be true – particularly when reality keeps neglecting to play along with the theory. 

Take, for example, news of the review of the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive.

We live in a golden age of British television, a booming industry that not only provides a dizzying range of high-quality drama and documentary at home, but also enjoys large export sales. Netflix has poured money into a large operation at Shepperton Studios, Sky is building a giant production facility in Elstree, and many thousands of new jobs are being generated by the UK creative sector.

European audiences lap up the resulting programmes. Half of all European-made shows available on demand across the EU come from the UK. 

It’s a tale that gladdens the heart. Ideas, talent and technology combine to make the sweetest fruits of the creative sector easily accessible to the people, no matter where they live.

The EU sees this happy story as a threat to be obstructed. 

Under the directive, there is a quota for the percentage of shows provided by on-demand services which must be “European”. A new proposal seeks to exclude UK television from being counted as European. To be precise, “the high availability of UK content... can result in a disproportionate presence of UK content”, which threatens the “cultural diversity” of EU television. 

The argument reveals several unsavoury truths. First, that the EU is instinctively protectionist. Its reflex attitude to imports is one of nativist defensiveness. It disregards the potential of its own citizens’ industry and talent, and prefers to believe that they are doomed without artificial protection

This betrays a deep-seated pessimism – which applies as much to sausages as to TV – that belies the European Commission’s rhetoric about a glorious future. 

In one breath the single market is a mighty and dominant engine of the global economy, and in the next it is at risk of being toppled by the menace of British bangers being sold in Belfast. So the EU culture commissioner announced in May that the EU’s creative industry is to “become the powerhouse of innovation in the world” – but now deems it so flimsy that it is at risk of being undermined simply by allowing people in France and Germany to watch Bridgerton.

Second, that despite its ambitions, the EU is still grappling to define what it is that it represents, and inadvertently keeps doing things that make it seem a bit paranoid and creepy. 

This example – in which “cultural diversity” is threatened by allowing people to watch TV made by foreigners – is not the first such missstep. In 2019 Ursula von der Leyen announced a new commissioner for “protecting the European way of life”, whose brief included coordinating policies on migration. A rebranding to the slightly softer “promoting the European way of life” didn’t make it much better.

Third, that in Brussels reality is expected to bend to political requirements. The UK is self-evidently a European country, despite this peculiar attempt to pretend that our TV shows are not “European” content. The Union may wish that its borders were synonymous with Europe, but they are not – and rewriting its laws to pretend otherwise won’t change that.

Finally, it seems that the EU is incapable of learning from experience. For decades, French law has required radio stations to make a certain percentage of their playlists by Francophone artists. The legislation has distorted the sector so weirdly that it has required repeated updates to try to plug loopholes: stations were playing the quota tracks in the middle of the night, so are now required to play them in peak hours; songs performed in English were excluded from the quota to try to encourage French artists to sing in French; then stations were accused of playing a limited stock of old classics to fulfil the quota, so a quota for new talent was then bolted on.

There is an alternative. The UK’s triumph in making great TV hasn’t come from banning imports from the Continent or the US. The EU could learn from the success story on its doorstep; that’s what a genuinely open institution would do. By pretending, and requiring audiences to pretend, that the competition from over the Channel doesn’t exist, the EU reveals itself to be fundamentally closed.

Mark Wallace is chief executive of ConservativeHome

Free trial CSS