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As US, EU talk trade, Germans fret over future of their treasured bookstores

The German government provides support and protection to the country's cultural outlets, including bookstores and orchestras. But as the EU and US hash out a free trade agreement, some Germans fear that safety net is threatened.

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Children books are presented in the book shop at the Book Fair in Leipzig, eastern Germany, in March 2007.

Eckehard Schulz/AP/File

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Is a book or a concert a good like beef?

Not to German novelist Nina George. But the prospect that it could be classified as such under a possible free trade deal has sent her to the barricades.

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To Ms. George, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which targets barriers to commerce in the 800-million US-EU market, could be fatal to arts and culture in Germany – much of which are publicly funded.

From Graz to Brussels to Helsinski, Europeans have been vocal about what they see as the proposed trade deal’s threat to consumer interests and protections.

But less talked about is a key divide between the US and Europe: the hand of government in promoting and protecting the arts and culture. To many in Europe, the potential for powerful business interests to overwhelm the Continent’s robust – and highly subsidized – cultural sector under TTIP is very real, and strikes at a key tenet of European identity.

“When the subsidies of our cultural life or tradition are described as trade barriers we get really angry,” says George, one of thousands of booksellers and theater and opera directors who converged on Berlin last month to protest TTIP. “The European mentality is that art is not made for the market, it is made for people, for their soul, and you cannot trade cultural products like hamburgers and sofas.”

A rich cultural landscape

Even in 17th Germany, hundreds of principalities each claimed their own opera and theater, yielding a cultural landscape that is one of the world’s most diverse. Today, the government spends some €9.1 billion on culture annually, supporting not more than 200 theaters and 130 professional orchestras (the US has 120 orchestras by comparison) but scores of musical schools for children, a special health care funds for artists, and concerts in refugee centers, hospitals and retirement houses.

“Why would this not be a lucrative market for American culture providers?” asks Andrea Masopust, who is with the German Orchestra Association in Hamburg. Berlin. Last year, Germany's orchestra and theater scene was recognized as "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO. If culture were part of the TTIP negotiations, he says, subsidies could be seen as a distortion of competition, paving the way for legal challenges.

“Let’s say an American orchestra says, ‘we want to play Vivaldi here in Germany,’” says Mr. Masopust. “Then they say, ‘we have a problem with compensation and we, too, want a piece of the pie.’”

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That’s a worst-case scenario for Jean-Marc Vogt, a violinist at the 200-year-old Frankfurt Museum and Opera Orchester.

“We couldn’t survive,” says Mr. Vogt. In Germany, he says, you can go to the opera for the price of a movie. Even the most isolated places offer concerts. “That’s why we’re rebelling.”

But performances are not the only area at risk, according to Europeans. Not far from the Frankfurt opera sits Hanns Dennerstein’s and Klaus Meichsner's 33-year-old bookstore. They have benefited from an other form of cultural subsidy: a law requiring all bookstores, online retailers included, to sell books at prices set by their publishers. Here there is no discount-pricing battle a la Amazon, and independent bookstores are everywhere. But TTIP could change that, critics say.

France first sounded the alarm on TTIP’s impact on culture in 2013, when it threatened to torpedo the deal if the film industry wasn’t taken off the negotiating table. It won an ‘exception culturelle,’ allowing it to keep a subsidy safeguarding its film industry from Hollywood competition.

“Without the French we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Olaf Zimmermann who, as head of the German Cultural Council, an umbrella group of 246 cultural groups, coordinates Germany’s position on the free trade deal.

Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently said that “when we have the impression that the text isn’t good enough, that culture isn’t protected enough, then we shouldn’t sign it.”

But advocates want it in writing that culture be excluded from TTIP. “TTIP is dealt behind closed doors, and the hiding makes us nervous,” says George.

The issue isn’t to block trade between Germany and the US. “But the question is whether we’re willing to give the USA a competitive advantage in the German market,” says Mr. Zimmermann, indicating that the answer is no.

“Sure, cultural diversity hurts the market, and with uniformity you can earn a lot more, and no country understands that better than the US - Hollywood is against cultural plurality,” he argues. “America has big firms with a deep interest in exporting to Germany, and for us trade barriers are a protection mechanism."

The German philosophy is that the government sees supporting culture as part of its public welfare responsibility just as supporting schools and hospitals. Vogt says that if TTIP forced Europe to adopt an American approach based on raising private funding, it could foster anti-Americanism among the European public. And its permanence could create a lasting division between the two continents.

"Instead of winning, we'd lose much on both sides," he says.