So many books with ‘European cinema’ in their titles have excellent chapters on Spanish, German, Italian, French and even British cinema, but say nothing about the subject that their covers promise. European cinema denies any hierarchy of its many languages, mixes and matches its stars and treats genres like play-doh. It includes local, regional, national, transnational and diasporic cinema. Attempts at defining the Europeanness of a film have pushed criteria such as its setting and locations, a healthy percentage of cast and crew, the nationality of the currency that funds it and the locality of the companies that work on it. However, these rules bend and break so easily, that a viable, working definition needs to ignore rigidity and embrace the fluidity of films from Europe instead. So the question is not what is European cinema, but what does the EU mean for filmmakers and filmgoers?

When the British Film Institute presented its five-year plan Film Forever: Supporting U.K. Film 2012-2017  in 2011, it was criticised by some UK producers for not pushing for the UK to rejoin Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s European Cinema Support Fund, which it had left in 1996. Eurimages takes in around €25 million from 37 member states and gives it out again, primarily to co-productions. Five films funded by Eurimages won big at Cannes this year and all five were co-productions that included France.

The EU offers funding to filmmakers through programmes such as Creative Europe, which came into being in January 2014, when it replaced the MEDIA and Culture programmes. It wields a €1.46 billion budget that funds workshops and industry events and responds to applications from aspiring filmmakers in member countries. UK applicants tend to approach it through regional offices that answer to the British Film Institute, which also administers Lottery funding to UK filmmakers. Of the 23 films supported by Creative Europe showing at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in 2016, 11 won prizes, including British director Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016), which won the Palme d’Or. I, Daniel Blake, which describes how UK government policies of austerity affect the British working class, received almost €100,000 from Creative Europe to support its development and distribution.

There are no co-production treaties in operation between the US and Europe. European filmmakers like Loach or their representatives can contact government-paid commissioners around Europe, who can also put them in touch with European producers seeking partners and investment opportunities for co-productions. US filmmakers also do this, if they qualify for European funding and if their films include elements sourced from European countries such as stars, crew or locations. Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight  (2013), for example, tapped into Greek funding through its producer Faliro House, which determined its being set and filmed in Messinia with a largely Greek crew. Perhaps Ken Loach might consider making his next film about the Greek working class and their response to the austerity imposed by the EU?

Although British filmmakers would lose out on direct access to some European funding if the UK left the EU, they might still be able to apply to Creative Europe by fulfilling certain criteria, because several non-EU countries that are members of the EEA participate in the programme too. But if films were to be ineligible for EU grants and subsidies, then European companies would have fewer incentives to enter co-production agreements with UK companies, unless significant UK funding or tax breaks came with them.

The knock-on effect of any separation of interests could also affect distribution. In response to any restrictions on UK access to EU funding, the UK government might offer to establish a protectionist quota for UK films that could be screened at your local art-house cinema, rather like treating UK audiences as fish that need saving from being swallowed up by another’s ships. But British films might still have a hard job finding proper screens (online streaming services are another matter), unless they were good, which tends to rely somewhat on funding. And if such quotas did exist, it would mean filmgoers missing out on an already scarce supply of European cinema, whatever that is.

Chair of European Film, Co-director of B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies, Department of Film and Creative Writing, University of Birmingham