BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers have backed French demands to exempt culture from a proposed free-trade pact between Europe and the United States, keeping Paris on side and raising the chances that the talks can start on time.
The European Parliament's influential trade committee voted on Thursday to leave all of Europe's cultural and audiovisual services out of the negotiations due to start in July, a decision that will shape the negotiating mandate that EU trade ministers are due to agree upon in June.
The vote follows comments this week by EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, who handles negotiations for the EU's 27 countries, that EU cultural policies would not be negotiated.
"France in particular remains perfectly free to maintain its subsidy schemes and quotas," De Gucht said in a statement.
France, Europe's second largest economy after Germany, has threatened to block the start of talks unless it retains a "cultural exception" that allows the government to limit foreign programmes on French airwaves and subsidise French films.
Washington and Brussels say the broadest deal possible in transatlantic free-trade talks encompassing almost half the world's economy is the best way to unleash billions of dollars in new business.
The European Commission says a deal has the potential to increase EU economic output by 65 billion euros (55 billion pounds) a year at a time when Europe's economy is stagnating.
France's support is crucial. A British push for an EU-U.S. trade deal collapsed in the 1990s in the face of French resistance.
But allowing for exceptions could complicate negotiations later on, because U.S. lawmakers say they will not support a deal unless it tears down barriers that have long blocked U.S. exports. One U.S. official said the talks risked "death by a thousand cuts" if a policy of tit-for-tat exemptions takes over.
EU Trade Committee Chairman Vital Moreira, an outspoken free-trade advocate, also voiced his concern.
"If we start to exclude chapters from the negotiations, of course the other side will do the same," Moreira told a news conference. "Room for negotiations is already very limited and I am convinced this is not helpful," he said.
De Gucht has also cautioned that regulation on genetically modified food will not change even if Brussels and Washington agree a trade agreement, dampening U.S. hopes of a shift.
Washington has long been frustrated by EU restrictions on U.S. farm produce, such as foodstuffs made with genetically modified organisms, poultry treated with chlorine washes and meat from animals fed with the growth stimulant ractopamine.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)