I’m delighted to host a guestpost from David Martin MEP, particularly when it’s on something as important as the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). David, through his role on the International Trade committee, has been appointed by the European Parliament to develop its response to the Agreement. What he has to say will be hugely influential in determining whether or not the Parliament consents to the Agreement. If you want to know why Europe matters – and the positive role the European Parliament can and does play in our lives, read on….
To some readers, the acronym ACTA will immediately generate a strong reaction and heated discussion with those around you. To many, I suspect, you will be googling it already to find out what it is and what all the fuss is about. European politics can sometimes feel like a sea of acronyms, but these four little letters have generated quite a storm throughout Europe recently. I am the MEP responsible for ACTA in the European Parliament and have been flooded with emails, letters and phone calls from citizens and journalists all over Europe, but you would be forgiven for blinking and missing it in the UK press.
ACTA is the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an international treaty negotiated between the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Singapore, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand. Its aim is to coordinate enforcement of intellectual property and copyright protection legislation. So, for example, to have clearer and more efficient international procedures for dealing with the seizure of large-scale counterfeited goods. Billions of pounds worth of fake goods from imitation Gucci handbags to Polish vodka and German car parts flow across borders every day, and the European Commission hopes that having a coordinated response to seizing suspected goods, tracing them and enforcing our own domestic legislation on counterfeiting will help stem the tide.
So why all the controversy? Firstly, because the agreement also covers digital products and online piracy including music and films. ACTA countries also want work together to tackle commercial-scale copyright violations online, and to stop some illegally operating companies making millions by uploading and charging for copyright-protected films and music. This brings in a whole new set of questions over the role of internet service providers in monitoring internet usage, and individual citizens’ right to privacy on the internet. Interest in the Agreement increased dramatically after the proposed anti-piracy legislation in the United States, the so-called SOPA and PIPA acts, were defeated as genuine concerns and inaccurate myths on ACTA went viral.
The Agreement is also controversial because of the perceived secrecy surrounding the negotiations. I am familiar with the processes of international negotiations through my work on the International Trade committee in the European Parliament, and there is certainly a need for a degree of confidentiality during negotiations for the trust of all partners around the table. Nonetheless, the ACTA procedure was particularly opaque, and I and my Socialist and Democrat colleagues (the parliamentary grouping of the European Parliamentary Labour Party and our sister socialist parties) objected strongly to the relatively scant information we were receiving from the European Commission. In response to this the Commission (which negotiates on behalf of the EU) was successful in persuading other partners, notably the US, to release drafts of the text, but it did not go far enough for the European Parliament.
There is no doubt the Agreement is highly controversial. Suspicious of the vague terms of enforcement in the Agreement and concerned that civil liberties could all too easily be undermined, millions of people took to the streets across the European Union, including small demonstrations in Scotland. Most of the mainstream media in Europe has covered the process exhaustively, following the protests on capital streets, the European Parliament’s highly scrutinised consideration and the paralysis which has gripped some Member State governments.
Once the Agreement was initialled by all the parties it needed to be ratified in their national legislatures. In the European Union this involves consent from the European Parliament and, in this case, ratification by all the Member State national governments. The majority of national governments have now signed it, including the UK which ratified it in February, although some have frozen their consideration under immense pressure from citizens to reject the Agreement.
Yesterday the Socialist and Democrat group held an open debate on ACTA with representatives from all sides of the debate, and at its conclusion I outlined my recommendation that the European Parliament reject ACTA. I agree with the stated aims of ACTA and the need for increased copyright protection to give European producers and creators the return on their innovation. We need it for the economic recovery, for job protection and creation and, in the case of products like car parts and medicines, we need it to keep dangerous and potentially life-threatening products off the market. But ACTA is too vague and there are real risks that over-zealous interpretations of the text could have a real impact on individual freedoms.
Interestingly while the ACTA battle has raged online and on the streets, there has been surprisingly little noise coming from the UK. In fact, the House of Commons decided there was little merit in even holding a debate on ACTA, and it was approved without protest. Every single Member State gave their approval to the final text in Brussels, and most national parliaments have now endorsed this. Without the new procedure under the Lisbon Treaty which requires European Parliament consent on all international agreements, ACTA would now be in force in the EU.
If the Parliament endorses my recommendation to reject it, ACTA will fall in the EU before the summer.
Stop ACTA is the international group campaigning against the Agreement.