Guestpost: David Martin MEP on why Europe should reject ACTA

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.

Why Scots’ support for EU membership is going down

One of the most interesting findings (to this burd anyhow) of a recent poll on independence was that fewer Scots now support membership of the EU.  In 2008,  40% of people polled wanted the UK to continue to represent Scotland’s interests in the UK, after independence and a further 40% wanted to be a separate member of the EU – a clear majority then in favour of some way of continuing with EU membership and only 13% wanted to leave the EU altogether.

When the poll was repeated at the end of February, 39% wanted the UK to continue to represent an independent Scotland in the EU but support for “independence in Europe” had fallen to 29%.  Meanwhile, support for leaving the EU altogether had risen to 21%.

The question is why?  What could behind this shift away from one of the cornerstones of the SNP’s approach to independence?

No doubt, the reasons are multifarious and complex.  But a press hostile to the EU and almost non-existent broadcast media coverage of what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg plays a role.

Take this splash from Monday’s Daily Express.  It forms part of its recently launched campaign to persuade (“get”) Britain to leave (“out of”) the European Union.  “From now on, our energies will be directed to furthering the cause of those who believe Britain is Better Off Out…. After far too many years as the victims of Brussels larceny, bullying, over-regulation and all-round interference, the time has come for the British people to win back their country and restore legitimacy and accountability to their political process.”

Oh boy.  Thus, the headline on Monday screamed:  “Now EU bans plastic bags”.  Only it hasn’t.  Compare and contrast the treatment of the same story in Der Spiegel, which produced the headline – Bagging It: EU Wants to Reduce Plastic Shopping Bag Use.  A very different proposition, I’m sure you’ll agree, so which is right?

Well, the story is that the EU is exploring how to reduce the usage of thin, single usage plastic bags.  A report has been prepared considering a range of options and – funnily enough – it has concluded that the option to ban their use altogether has already been discounted, partly because it would be a “blunt instrument” but essentially because it would conflict with international trade law and internal EU market rules.

Clearly the Express piece is nonsense and highlights the appalling misinformation that some press sources in the UK propagate about the EU to whomever is unfortunate enough to read their blatts.  This is because of their own editorial peccadilloes which are often politically hostile to EU membership or at best, agnostic.  The sort of scare stories which appear in too many newspapers, and have done for some years now, are one reason why support for the EU is falling in Scotland.

Another reason is the lack of coverage at all.  Some might recall some recent wittering by me about a European report into the gender pay gap and the measures being proposed to tackle it.  Yet, it received zilch coverage from the mainstream media.  So I asked a European Parliament official about it.

Not for the lack of trying, was the response.  To coincide with the publication of that report, a debate was hosted by Europe House in London.  About 80 journalists were invited – social affairs correspondents, women’s pages editors, magazine editors – journalists you might have thought would be interested in the gender pay gap in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Not a single one turned up.  Hence, no coverage.  All they had to do was stagger across London (most of them) and still they couldn’t find the time or inclination.

Increasingly – like many – the European Parliament is turning to social media to get its message out, especially in the UK.  For that same debate, an #EUwomendebate Twitter hashtag was created and used in the run up to the event.  Two Twitter walls were built inside the room of the debate and attendees received wifi passwords, encouraging participants to tweet using the hashtag. Approximately 250 tweets appeared on the wall during the debate, with several people joining the debate online.  The result?  45,000 people reached through Twitter.  Other social media, such as blogging and Facebook, were used as well.

According to the same official:  “this should give us food for thought: the people speaking that day (just ahead of the consultation on quotas for company boards was announced by the European Commission) are the ones with some real power to change things for women but old media is not going to stir unless it’s a sex or money scandal. So if I want to inform women about what is being done for them in Europe (totally one-sidedly, you could argue) I have to go to women citizens journalists directly. Isn’t this a sad state of affairs?”

That consultation is now underway and there is a real chance that the European Parliament will vote for compulsory female quotas in the boardroom.  Which would explain some of the blethers a few months ago from big business about how they are all working hard to improve women’s representation. It was clearly an attempt to head off the prospect of legislative compulsion.  Too late, I hope.  Scotland has nothing to crow about on this issue, as evidenced by the rather excellent detective work by Kenneth Roy at Scottish Review.

This is actually an exciting time for European matters, especially for those of us who care about gender equality.  We should be lobbying our representatives in the European Parliament and responding to this consultation – whether or not we support the proposals for compulsion – but how can we when barely anyone who is PAID to cover this sort of news cannot be bothered to do their job and inform the public?

No doubt, once big business shifts from its torpor and pokes the media, we will get a rash of negative headlines and scare stories on this.  It will be news then and yet another opportunity for the media to improve people’s view of what goes on in Europe will have been lost.  As usual, we will be invited to see the worst side, especially if, like the Express, news outlets take licence with the verity.

And yet, given the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, it has never been more important for us to understand the workings of the European Union and to receive information about the good it does for Scotland and many people living here.  Shame we cannot rely on the fourth estate to provide it.


Bring on the girls

A great big burd peck on both cheeks to Plaid Cymru’s new leader, Leanne Woods AM.  I have to confess not having paid much attention to Plaid’s leadership contest – more fool me.

Not only is Leanne only 40 but she is well left-of-centre, definitely on the independence side of the Plaid movement, an AM from the south of Wales.  And a republican and proud to show it.  Wow.

Plaid now has an all-woman line-up at its top.  I had the pleasure of meeting Jill Evans last year in Strasbourg, and as well as being an MEP, she is also the party’s President. Then there is Helen-Mary Jones, the party’s chairperson and Rhuanedd Richards, its Chief Executive.  Double wow.

I can’t help thinking the women in the party have got themselves organised and conducted a bit of a coup.  Sisterhood and solidarity.  Triple wow.

Leanne Woods appears to have succeeded by appealing to young party members and using online platforms – sound familiar? – to sprint from being rank outsider to outright winner.  Her acceptance speech hit all of my right spots and she does seem to be signalling a big shift in approach.  The i-word was mentioned;  so too was the highly unfashionable “free”.

Having learned from their sister party up here, maybe they could teach the SNP a few tricks too.

If Leanne Woods’ election was a good news moment, then seeing the serried ranks of Edinburgh’s SNP council candidates in all their monochrome glory in the local campaign paper was a low one.

Of 22 candidates, only three are women.  That’s an appalling 13% of the total.  If all the candidates in the capital city are elected, and all 43 of the Glasgow candidates are, in our two biggest cities in the land, a paltry 15% of SNP councillors will be women (7 of Glasgow’s 43 are women).  In the biggest party in the country, with the largest membership, it is shocking.

Which is not to suggest that the gender balance in the other parties will be much better after the local government elections.  And it adds to the pretty dismal showing across the board at the Scottish Parliamentary elections last year. Gender balance at Holyrood improved ever-so-slightly from its previously worst ever level in 2007 of 33% to 34% but that was largely a fluke caused by the SNP’s majority win, resulting in more women coming through the Labour regional list route.

It all adds to the pressure on parties to “do something”.  Pressure, it has to be said, being brought to bear largely by the Electoral Reform Society which today (in the Guardian) accused the main political parties of “failing to push for more women” in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.  Indeed, the ERS goes further in accusing them of allowing the issue of equal representation to “fester” and showing “open hostility or indifference“.  Strong stuff but not undeserved.

No party in Scotland now practises positive action to try and deliver equal gender balance in its representation in the Parliament.  And it has had an impact in causing a generally downward trend in the number of women MSPs.

As far as the SNP is concerned, there is definitely a move on to win a yes vote from more women in the independence referendum.  This weekend, there will be a major pitch to the mother in your life – to coincide cheesily with Mother’s Day – involving a Mother’s Day e-card and a challenge to women members and social media supporters to send it on to ten more mums.  Yeah, cos this is a woman’s problem to be solved by the women already connected to the party.  And not by the blokes who currently dominate.

It’s a good idea and it’s a start, but really it’s too superficial to produce more than a temporary filip (though I’ll happily be proved wrong).  Marketing is only one part of the solution.  The claims to be on mammies’ side look pretty threadbare when set aside the reality that is the low number of council candidates in the forthcoming local election.

Such measures are only skindeep:  the SNP and indeed, other political parties have to do something far more fundamental to change the nature, look and membership of their parties for good.  And if they won’t do so willingly, well the European Parliament might be about to make them.

On Tuesday, MEPs passed a series of resolutions aimed at tackling gender inequality.  One of them involves setting electoral quotas.  These have successfully been applied in Spain, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Portugal and Poland and according to Sophia in’t Veld, the MEP from the Netherlands who proposed the resolution, should now be considered for all member states.  A second resolution, also passed on Tuesday, proposes to apply “binding measures and sanctions… at national and EU level… to ensure gender parity in political decision-making, including electoral lists and top EU positions“.  The resolutions were laid during a debate on the Parliament’s 2011 annual report on gender equaltiy in the EU.  Interestingly, the Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that proposals to create such measures “may be put forward later this year“.

Whether or not these manoeuvrings at European level ultimately result in action is debatable:  I struggle to see the male-dominated world of the European Council where power lies, voting like the proverbial turkeys but there is definitely movement on this issue.  And not a moment too soon.

Current levels of women’s representation at all levels of politics in the UK – the fab four at the top of Plaid Cymru aside – are woeful, and the parties seem incapable or unwilling or simply clueless about how to address them.  Even where there is some commitment to and activity on addressing the matter, it will struggle to achieve any traction in parties which are remarkably resistant to internal change.

As Ms in’t Veld remarked during the European Parliament debate: “Spontaneously it ain’t gonna happen:  colleagues, it is now time to act“.

Couldn’t have put it better myself:  it’s time to bring on the girls.