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26th Aug 2019

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EU commission admits mistake on Acta

  • An Acta protest - "once we have unhappy or frustrated citizens on the squares or in the streets, it's already too late for the communication" (Photo: Agnes Lisik)

The European Commission has said it was surprised by the scale of opposition to a global anti-counterfeit treaty, having underestimated the power of social media to mobilise protesters.

Maros Sefcovic, a commission vice-president, on Tuesday (20 March) admitted his institution was caught on the back foot when thousands of people earlier this year took to the streets to protest the agreement.

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“What is the power of the people? We saw it recently here in January and February when we suddenly realised that, in spite of the freezing temperatures, we had thousands of people in different squares in Europe protesting against Acta."

Acta – the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement – is meant to protect intellectual property rights, as well as target counterfeit goods and generic medicines, but critics say it undermines freedom of expression and privacy.

The European Commission, negotiating the treaty alongside EU member states since 2008, has often been in the firing line over the secrecy of the international discussions.

But the issue really flared up when it and 22 member states signed the document in January and formal ratification began.

“We saw how our absence in the world of social media on this particular topic caused us a lot of troubles,” Sefcovic told a Brussels audience.

“I think this is a lesson for all of us that we have to be much more active and in a much more communicative mood when it comes to such sensitive topics in the future,” he added.

The protests took place in several cities in Europe, resulting in a series of member states deciding to suspend ratification. The European Parliament, which can reject the treaty, received a two-million strong global petition against Acta.

The commission for its part made tactical semi-retreat in February by saying it would turn over the treaty to the EU's highest court to see if it breached any EU laws, particularly on privacy.

"We saw this huge wave of communication on the social media to which we didn't react on time (causing) the situation where we need now to backtrack a little bit and look for reassurances from the European Court of Justice," said Sefcovic.

But some believe the commission took the easy way by seeking to depoliticise the discussion and focus it on legalese.

Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament, recently suggested that by taking the court step, the commission had removed the immediate chance for parliament to discuss an issue that citizens feel strongly about.

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