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Op-ed from MEP Laurence Farreng

This ninth term of the European Parliament has been a special one for culture, for many reasons. It began with two major shocks.

The first was Brexit, which the British cultural sector voted overwhelmingly against. For the first time, a part of our Union has chosen to separate itself politically and culturally from our continent. With the ‘no deal’ on culture, the British lost the opportunity to take part in Europe Creative, and European and British artists lost the chance to perform freely across the border.

The second shock was, of course, the COVID-19 crisis. First to see its doors closed, the cultural and creative ecosystem was in many cases the last to reopen, with uncertain prospects: when would the public be ready to return to the cinema, a concert hall, or a museum? Four per cent of European GDP and 7 million jobs, the vast majority in small and medium-sized enterprises, were at stake. With the Renew Europe group, in September 2020 we put to the vote what was then the very first text of this mandate on culture: we asked all the Member States to earmark at least 2 per cent of their European recovery plan for this sector. Our artists and creators cannot be left on the sidelines: relaunching Europe also meant allowing what allows its soul, its identity, and its values to shine.

This is the context in which the European Parliament has begun its mandate in cultural matters. It should be remembered that we have only a supporting competence, supplementing the efforts of the Member States, and a budgetary margin limited to the Creative Europe programme, of €2.44 billion over seven years, that is, 0.2 per cent of the total budget of the European Union; nevertheless, our Parliament and our political family can be proud of the work we have accomplished. We have surfed the unstoppable digital wave to ensure that our cultural priorities are incorporated.

To begin with, we have invested in new fields of cultural practice that previously were considered ‘too new’ for politics to grasp.

One of the most striking examples is video games. Half of Europeans are gamers, and, contrary to popular belief, not all of them are teenagers or young men. Video games are played by equal numbers of men and women (46.7 per cent of gamers are women), while the average age of a European gamer is 32. And the figures are too big to ignore: the video games industry in Europe is a €24.5 billion market, employing 110,000 people with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. The European Union is home to world-class studios such as Ubisoft, Asobo, CD Projekt, and Paradox Interactive, and every year we receive awards: for example, the Belgian game Baldur’s Gate III, developed by Larian Studios, was named Game of the Year This industry is doing extremely well, demonstrating a new dimension of our talent for digital creation, promoting our culture and our European stories, connecting us to the world.

Yet it remains a great unknown to our politicians.

Therefore, with the support of the Culture Committee, I drew up the first report on European video games, which was voted on with great enthusiasm in November 2022. This text called on the European institutions to recognise the video game sector as a major cultural and economic industry, and to create a genuine European strategy for its development, promotion, and protection.

Another formidable field that is little known to politicians is esports, where millions of players compete in tournaments that are comparable to our biggest sporting events. Of course, esports are not a sport in the strict sense of the word, but the values and skills that it imparts, such as fair play and team spirit, resonate with the sporting spirit. So, like video games, esports are not only about values but also about soft power. At a time when Saudi Arabia has announced a $38 billion investment strategy in esports between now and 2030, when the Chinese behemoth Tencent is spending billions on our European companies, and when the market is undergoing consolidation (the purchase of Activision-Blizzard by Microsoft for $69 billion is an obvious case in point), it is crucial that the European Union takes action for its sector and recognises it for what it can bring us.

This is no longer the sole concern of the European Parliament, as the other European institutions have taken up the issue following our initiative. First of all, the Commission launched a major study entitled ‘Understanding the value of a European video game society’ in order to obtain detailed insights on the state of the sector. Then, in November 2023, the Council of the European Union, at the instigation of the Spanish Presidency, issued its first conclusions on enhancing the cultural and creative dimension of the European video games sector. It’s about time!

Above all, it is important for us to offer European culture and its creators annappropriate framework in our digital age.

How can we ignore the revolutions that artificial intelligence (AI) has already brought about and will bring about in the future? ChatGPT, Dall-E, and others have already impressed us with the scope of their possibilities, but at what price will their development come? The EU has just finalised an innovative regulation on AI, which is the first of its kind in the world. However, it is a horizontal text that does not deal specifically with cultural issues. The major generative AI models are therefore only required, in principle, to publish a sufficiently detailed summary of their training data. This training data often comprises Europe’s most precious asset: creativity, talent, art – our identity.

This text is a first step, but above all it underlines the urgency of the political challenge facing the European institutions over the next few years: hand in hand, the next European Parliament, the next European Commission, and the Council will have to develop a text on the relationship between culture and digital technology, which will enable innovation on our continent and appropriate remuneration for our creative minds while at the same time promoting this culture, both within the Union and beyond our borders. The digital transformation has radically changed our cultural consumption habits (for example with the explosion of music streaming, allowing access to millions of works at a derisory cost), and we must not only put an end to the ‘digital Wild West’ but also ensure that it is a beneficial and attractive environment for cultural and creative workers, to make our continent shine in the world.

The European Union cannot be strong without a well-defined cultural agenda. The challenges it is currently facing, linked to defence, enlargement, migration, and the climate, cannot put cultural issues on the sidelines: culture is the living face of our values and our European identity. On the eve of the next European elections, I fervently hope that the next mandate will pursue and put into practice the work that began in 2019: investing in the modern cultural practices of Europeans and offering Europe’s cultural sectors and industries a digital framework adapted to their activity.

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