MEP Alexis Georgoulis on the ‘European Status of the Artist’

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It seems that the issue of ‘culture’ is not a political priority in the European Union, or is it? Well, at least it seems so when following the news these days, with loads of other political topics gaining headlines and awareness, causing ‘culture’ to fall behind.

In fact, the situation is not quite as it appears on first view. And it’s important not to forget as well that political proceedings are a complex undertaking, accompanied by a highly formal and legal language that demands careful and proper reading.

But here and there eventually headlines are popping up, that are describing a topic that is clearer. One of these is: ‘EU-MEPs call for minimum social standards for artists and cultural workers’.

23-11-2021

Instead of now digging deep into a text-jungle going along with this headline, it might be more appropriate to ask a politician to explain what this initiative is all about.

Even more appropriate it appears to be that in the context of culture, MEP Alexis Georgoulis is a very rare kind of a politician. Before being elected as member of the European Parliament, Georgoulis enjoyed a successful career as a film actor and theatre director, so he knows pretty well the situation of artists and what it means to work within the culture sector.

Georgoulis is a member of the Greek party Syriza and since 2019 a member of the Left group in the European Parliament. Besides the credibility of Georgoulis as a member of the cultural community, it additionally needs to be mentioned that the EU-resolution ‘Call for minimum social standards for artists and cultural workers’ can be considered as a genuine political milestone. It covers a lot of topics which are also meaningful for the music sector.

Please explain the political meaning of the resolution ‘European Status of the Artist’ and its likely impact on the European Commission?
Alexis Georgoulis: This resolution acknowledges the precariousness of artists’ status even before Covid-19 pandemic, which is due to the non-standard nature of their working conditions, social security and income. It refers to the obstacles they face regarding cross border mobility, because of the multiple artists’ definitions and frameworks that coexist in the EU. Thus, it proposes the elaboration of a common European framework for working conditions, social security and health care in cultural and creative sectors and industries, so as to establish minimum standards. Moreover, it urges the Member States (MS) to financially support Creative and Cultural Sectors and at the same time to defend and respect artistic freedom associated with the fundamental right to freedom of expression. As you know culture is a national issue, so this text is not a binding one. Nevertheless, it brings this difficult issue on the table, it can boost the debate and push the Commission to organize an exchange of best practices among MS and to monitor the progress made.

Apparently you made a lot of contributions to the draft report of amendments in the ongoing document of this resolution. How would you describe the political process and proceedings with the politicians within the Culture Committee of the European Parliament for this resolution?
Evidently, I was very interested in the report that was discussed in the CULT Committee (Culture Committee) before the issue came in the Plenary. That is why as Shadow Rapporteur I submitted 63 amendments to improve it and finally 57 of my amendments were adopted, primarily those concerning social security and the creation of a minimum common European framework for the employment and insurance rights of artists and cultural workers. I confess that a spirit of consent dominated the CULT Committee. The amendments that didn’t gather sufficient support concerned mainly measures to promote gender equality, such as strengthening the presence of women in cultural decision-making positions as well as a common European code of conduct to ensure the safety of artists in both their schools and their work and to protect them from any form of harassment, violence and abuse of power in general. However, I’m bringing back this last issue with a new question to the Commission.

Are you pleased with the voting result from the European Parliament?
Yes, indeed, because the Resolution was adopted by a vast majority. The same happened a year ago in the case of the Resolution on the cultural recovery of Europe which was supported by all major groups and adopted by an overwhelming majority. It seems that there is an unanimity on culture issues in the European Parliament.

One of the topics refers to ‘Copyright income and streaming platforms.’ The distribution of payments from streaming revenues is widely described as very uneven. What kind of political options do you consider as being needed to enhance payment schemes between streaming platforms, content creators and suppliers?
The Cultural Creators Friendship Group (CCFG), a European Parliament cross-party group, in which I participate actively, has worked a lot on this issue. Artists should have a fair remuneration for their work, the same as all working people. The problem can be solved, if article 18 of the directive 790/2019 is implemented in all MS (Member States.) This directive should have been adopted in national legislations before July 2021. However, only a minority of MS have completed the legislative procedure. I have raised this problem with a letter and a question to the Commission. Eventually, all MS will incorporate article 18 in their legislation to avoid the fines, but it is crucial to do it as quickly as possible, since the pandemic has given a greater importance to the role to the platforms, while the numbers of live events have seriously decreased. Naturally, it is not enough to provide the right law; the implementation of the legislation must be closely monitored so that it is respected.

One of the amendments to the resolution from yourself says: “whereas public grants are considered the most vital and effective form of financial support for some of the CCS, but are often overcomplicated and too difficult to access for those who need them the most;” What kind of opportunities you as a politician have to improve bureaucratic burdens and is it even imaginable that administrative bodies are able to adopt more citizen-friendly policies?
Cultural organizations and institutions or large artist groups have the luxury of employing competent staff to deal with the complicated procedures in applying for public funding. However, the ones who need this financial support the most are those who cannot pay someone else to prepare the required documents and they themselves have no experience in such procedures. During the discussions with the Council and the Commission on the new Creative Europe, the European Parliament demanded emphatically that we declare in the text that the programme must be easily accessible and that the bureaucratic burden must decrease. Now we need to see the implementation of these paragraphs. What is important is that the administrative bodies that run the programme know that they will be assessed regarding the demand for user-friendly procedures. They cannot ignore this.

Earlier on in May 2020 a briefing entitled as ‘EU support for artists and the cultural and creative sector during the coronavirus crisis’ by the European Parliamentary Research Service were published. In just twelve pages this report only briefly covers the situation at this stage of the pandemic within the cultural sector. However, it also reveals that many meaningful aspects such as market concentration or the financial gap between the institutionalized culture sector and non-funded culture ventures have not been considered appropriately. Would you say such one-sided evaluations are based on the lack of knowledge or are such reports written due to political preferences?
With the elements the European Parliamentary Research Service had at its disposal, it would be difficult to produce something much more detailed and comprehensive. The collection of data regarding the Creative and Cultural Sectors is quite problematic. Myself I only realized it after the eruption of the pandemic, when there was an urgent need for concrete data in order to propose suitable measures to support artists and cultural workers. My assistants were searching for data and we found out that EUROSTAT could not provide them. It is then that we decided to create the ‘European Observatory for Culture’ on my website, where we publish studies and information useful for those who are interested in cultural matters.

I have insisted on several occasions that, in order to take the right decisions, policy makers ought to base them on a concrete and clear image of the reality of the field. The political aspect of this problem is that until now decision makers did not consider it necessary to ask EUROSTAT to collect detailed information on artists, productions etc., for example on the institutionalized and non-institutionalized cultural sectors. I have submitted a question to the Commission about the lack of data. Thanks to the pandemic the need to fill this void is more than evident, so I hope some initiative will be taken about this. A Greek proverb says “all bad things have a positive side”.

Support schemes and funding for popular music compared to those for classical music, theatre, film or other so called serious arts are still very rare. The Raad voor Cultuur (Council for Culture) in the Netherlands filed a recommendation to treat popular music in terms of funding equally to classical music in 2017. One of the arguments therefore has been that every part of society should equally benefit from the public support of culture according to their preferences. Do we need younger or more progressive politicians to change the current political mindset for better balanced cultural policies in Europe to serve the interests of all parts of society more evenly?
In my opinion the political mindset is not determined by age. There are young people with backward ideas and older people with fresh and progressive ones. What is important is to be open minded and to truly value the fundamental European principles in all domains, including culture. Thus, it is not democratic to support some kinds of art and not others financially, for example to support concerts of classical music and not of rock music. Because citizens are free to like whatever style of music they want and politicians should respect their choices by distributing funds in a fair way. While progressive way of thinking is the most important thing for balanced policies, age is also important for another reason. Young politicians tend to be more up to date regarding the evolution of technology, web platforms, etc., something rather important in order to understand some of the current problems and to search their solutions. 

In the article ‘Culture, creativity and coronavirus: time for EU action’ for the newsletter ‘Social Europe’ Elena Polivtseva, head of the lobbying organisation ‘International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts’, stated: “What has been lacking, however, is a focus on those who ‘make’ culture—the artists and cultural professionals.” You are yourself an actor, what are your observations according to the remark of Polivtseva in reference to the political landscape in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe?
I agree with her point of view. Although lately the EU texts recognize the importance of culture for both societal and personal well being as well as its contribution to the economy, this discourse is not consistently translated into concrete action. To recognize the contribution of culture means to recognize the contribution of the artists and cultural workers who create art, and, consequently, to sufficiently support them, especially during these difficult times. The Resolution which was voted by the European Parliament a year ago proposed that 2% of the budget for the national recovery plans should be attributed to the Creative and Cultural Sectors (CCS), since they were extremely heavily hit by the pandemic. It seems that the Commission did not encourage the MS in this direction. As far as the MS are concerned, the big differences regarding the support of CCS – which already existed across the EU – were magnified during the pandemic. The fact that artists used their creativity to find ways to continue to produce and offer art meant to some people that they don’t need substantial aid, since they are ‘resilient’, they are capable of adapting themselves and  surviving. However, the artists’ struggle for survival does not at all improve their ability to contribute to art nor to society.

Interview by Manfred Tari

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