Business groups and the European Commission are mobilising against the European Parliament to prevent a controversial agreement on combating counterfeiting from being struck down by MEPs.
Opposition to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has been growing since it was signed in Japan in January. On Saturday (11 February), demonstrations against the agreement were held in cities across the EU, with tens of thousands attending protests in Berlin, Warsaw and Paris. Opponents argue that the agreement would give governments greater powers to restrict access to the internet in the name of tackling piracy. Groups opposed to the agreement have hacked into government websites and that of the European Parliament.
Although the EU was a party to the international agreement, five national governments – Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria – have now suspended their procedures for its ratification. Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, said he would delay approval for up to a year.
The consent of the European Parliament is needed for EU ratification and opposition there has grown in recent weeks. A resolution supporting ACTA was approved by only a narrow majority of MEPs in November and since then support has weakened. Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, said last week that his centre-left group might not be able to support the agreement. Joseph Daul, the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, was also ambivalent this week. “We will examine ACTA carefully, taking into consideration all concerns over possible restrictions for the internet,” he said in Strasbourg on Tuesday (14 February).
If the Polish and Czech governments come out against the agreement, then support for it in the EPP and the European Conservatives and Reformists groups would be weakened.
Martin Schulz, the president of the Parliament and immediate past leader of the S&D group, criticised the agreement in an interview on German television on Sunday (12 February). “The necessary balance between protection of copyright on the one hand and fundamental rights of [internet] users on the other is very poorly enshrined in this treaty,” he said.
Karel De Gucht, the European commissioner for trade, has written to MEPs saying that there is a “misinformation campaign” against ACTA and that the agreement does not change existing EU rules. De Gucht is planning to meet political groups to make the case for supporting ACTA. He will take part in a hearing on ACTA at the Parliament’s trade committee on 1 March.
ACTA was agreed in November 2010 after four years of negotiations among the EU’s 27 members and ten other countries including the US and Japan. It aims to improve the fight against counterfeiting at international level through greater co-ordination of anti-counterfeiting measures and tougher enforcement.
Supporters of the agreement, including the European Commission, say that it does not give governments any powers that are not already contained in EU legislation and that the agreement will play an important role in defending the intellectual property rights of European companies.
Business groups are urging MEPs to back the agreement. A group of 44 business organisations wrote to all MEPs on 10 February, urging them to support ACTA. The group, which includes associations representing a range of sectors, including the music industry, software developers, and filmmakers, said that ACTA was “good for Europe” and would protect European companies and jobs from counterfeiting. Christina Sleszynska from the Brussels office of the International Trademark Association said it would be a “missed opportunity” if MEPs failed to support ACTA because of “misinformation”. “We call on the European Parliament to look at the text, to look at the legal opinion and do what is required to deal with criminal networks that are dealing in counterfeit goods,” she said.
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