Battle lines drawn up in EU row on Acta
By Benjamin Fox
The European Commission has stepped into the growing row over the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, Acta, as leading MEPs refuse to fast-track parliamentary approval due to bad faith in the talks.
Speaking to EUobserver in Brussels on Thursday (2 February), EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding reiterated her position that Acta does not detract from any laws already in force in the EU, noting that the commission has "tested it on European law and results are positive. It is fine with European legislation."
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She voiced concern that "Acta has been twisted and misunderstood" and added that "it is not a battlefield for the freedom of the press."
The European Commission signed Acta - an international agreement on copyright and intellectual property protection - last week along with 22 member states, the US, Australia and Canada.
Brussels expects the remaining five EU countries - Cyprus, Estonia, The Netherlands, Germany and Slovakia - to come on board shortly after sorting out technical issues.
But there is a growing backlash by MEPs, some of whom foresee a veto on the deal.
For his part, German deputy Bernd Lange, the Socialist group's point-man on international trade, criticised the commission's lack of good faith during the negotiations. "The commission failed in its transparency policy and it did not share information with the parliament over the negotiation process," he said.
The Parliament has consistently demanded access to documents related to the negotiations carried out on their behalf by the Commission in a series of written declarations backed by the centre-right EPP, European liberals and the Socialists dating back to 2008.
Lange dashed commission hopes the parliament will move toward a swift approval telling press: "I doubt the report will be voted before the summer. There are still many open questions on how this agreement would affect citizens and specific areas such as access to generic medicines and net neutrality. We don't want internet providers to become the sheriffs of cyberspace."
He added: "We will examine the text in detail and maybe ask the European Court of Justice for a legal opinion."
Parliament does not have the right to table amendments to Acta as it does on most other bills - as it is an international agreement - but instead has a single vote whether to approve the text or not.
The international trade committee in the European Parliament will hold its first discussion on the agreement at the end of February and a vote in the plenary is initially scheduled for June.
Remarking on the procedure, Lange said: "Now the only possibility we have in the European Parliament is either to give our consent or refuse the whole text, without any chance to amend it. It is a critical decision for the EU and we cannot vote in a rush."
Lange became the Socialist spokesman on Acta after last week's dramatic resignation by Acta rapporteur, French Socialist Kader Arif, who dubbed the negotiations a "masquerade" designed to rush through the law without proper public consultation.
The Socialist group is expected to retain the rapporteurship, with veteran British left-wing MEP David Martin touted by some sources as a possible candidate.
The Acta row engulfing the EU institutions follows similar events in the US.
Following widespread media and online criticism, including a blackout of its English-language sites by Wikipedia, Acta-type US Internet laws Sopa and Pipa were shelved by congress last month.
In the hours following the publication of the EU signatories on Acta, bloggers and online campaigners made frenzied attempts to lobby MEPs, with critics of Acta saying it infringes data privacy and civil liberties.
In Warsaw, thousands took to the streets shouting slogans such as "No to censorship" and "A free internet", while hackers succeeded in forcing the European Parliament website off-line for several hours last Thursday.