There are few places that seem quite as far removed from the realities of the film business as the European Parliament in Brussels. A conference last week, 'The way forward for the European film industry', had a pleasingly surreal edge after the down-and-dirty reality of a somewhat subdued AFM.

Even the title puts a bloated Euro elephant in the room. If such an entity as the European film industry exists as a coherent whole, there is not the remotest chance of it heading in any single direction. A single industry at the heart of a European cultural identity is a great idea until it runs into the truth of dozens of cottage industries scattered across a range of nations, each with its own film history.

One can understand the desire of a pan-continental body to talk in grandiose terms. It's a compliment to the film industry that it still has the profile to be a political football. But even though European films can boast 20%-25% of the European market - equivalent to the share of the biggest US studio - pooling that muscle to take on Hollywood is fanciful.

The problem is that there is no focus to a European dream at a continental level. The aims of leaders are cultural, political, social and there's some economics in there too.

Hollywood, by contrast, proves by the day that it has no interest in cultural imperialism even if the effect of its ubiquity in markets has a profound influence on local cultures. Hollywood is in the business business.

The theme of the Brussels conference was at least forward-looking. Can digital technologies, and particularly video-on-demand (VoD), avoid today's studio domination'

Once one skips past the idea that there might be some EU-controlled distribution network, which seemed to be implied in discussions, there is at least some clarity to the question. Predictably, the wooliness comes in trying to answer difficult questions without upsetting anyone.

The European industry is just as unwilling as the studios to discuss release windows. It's impossible to get funding for any enterprise, however innovative, that does not respect the gap between theatrical and other releases. The cinema has a fetishistic hold on European consciousness and the industry often shuns films without theatrical leanings. European institutions are constantly trying to balance the competing demands of national and continental aims, and film is no different.

Nonetheless, there are aims that can be pursued at a level beyond individual companies and countries. European bodies can ensure, for example, that film companies can operate on a much more consistent regulatory and legal framework. There are big differences between nations on everything from copyright to piracy that serve to accentuate the fragmentation in the continent's film business.

What can also be encouraged are business initiatives that seek to address clear areas of weakness in the digital world. The internet is a wonderful tool that theoretically offers access to the world. But the reason no one uses the term "surf" to describe web use anymore is that there is so much data it's easy to be swamped.

Micro-business gets harder by the day. We know from looking at today's film finance landscape that micro-businesses find it impossible to unlock private-equity finance. European money has even trotted off to big studio slates in the US and figures suggesting many investors may have got their hands burned in studio losses doesn't mean they will take Europe any more seriously (see p6).

The small film-rights holder is also strongly disadvantaged in trying to negotiate deals with the big telecoms or technology companies keen to dominate the VoD market.

Encouraging initiatives that bring together film-makers across European boundaries to use their collective muscle in rights negotiations makes sense. Supporting an advanced technical and legal infrastructure to support businesses also has a compelling logic.

If Europe is serious about doing something to make the digital world a real opportunity for film-makers it needs less rhetoric, more focus and an injection of real courage.