21st Oct 2016

Acta in tatters after MEPs wield veto

The little-loved anti-counterfeit treaty, Acta, has collapsed after MEPs in the European Parliament vetoed it by an overwhelming majority.

After comfortably rejecting a request by the centre-right EPP group to postpone the vote, MEPs voted to scrap the treaty by 478 to 39, with EPP members dominating the 165 abstentions.

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The decisive rejection of the agreement followed last-ditch attempts by centre-right MEPs and the European Commission to delay the decision until the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice had delivered its legal opinion on Acta's compatibility with existing EU law.

Prior to the vote, Swedish MEP Christofer Fjellner, the EPP's spokesman on Acta, and Klaus Hehne Lehne, a German centre-right MEP and chairman of the legal affairs committee, argued that parliament should honour the court's right to issue a legal opinion.

Speaking in the parliament debate on Tuesday (3 July) trade commissioner Karel De Gucht, who led the EU negotiating team, insisted that Acta is "not an attack on our liberties, it is a defence of our livelihoods," adding that the parliament's own legal service had itself given it the green light.

However, David Martin, the British centre-left MEP who drafted parliament's recommendation to reject Acta, insisted that the treaty is only alive "thanks to the EPP life-support machine," while urging MEPs to "give it its last rites."

Although Acta's defeat had been widely predicted after five parliament committees voted against it, the result is a huge blow for the commission, which will now have to persuade other signatory countries, including the US, Japan and Canada, to re-open negotiations on the treaty.

It also marks the first time that MEPs have used their new powers to block ratification of an international agreement.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2010, parliament must give its consent before international treaties drawn up by the EU executive can be ratified.

Swedish Pirate party MEP, Amelia Andersdotter, described the vote as a "milestone for European democracy and for the political debate on intellectual property protection in the digital age."

However, following the vote, the commission remained defiant about its wish to salvage the treaty, reiterating that the EU executive would "maintain its request to the Court of Justice before deciding on further steps to take."

Despite this, there seems little prospect of a revamped Acta returning to parliament before the next European elections in 2014. Instead, MEPs are expected to encourage the commission to put forward EU-wide legislation on digital piracy.

International negotiations on Acta started in 2006, but were first brought to light in the publication of a series of Wikileaks cables in 2008.

Critics of the agreement have focused their ire on the apparent secrecy of the negotiations, with few documents being made public or released to parliaments, as well as on ambiguous language regarding the reach of criminal sanctions and the role of Internet service providers.

While 22 EU countries originally signed up to Acta, a spate of public protests in early 2012 led to a number of countries halting their ratification process.

Last week, politicians in Australia and the Netherlands became the latest to halt domestic approval of the treaty.

Meanwhile, public opinion hardened against the treaty, with an Internet campaign group Avaaz attracting more than 2.5 million signatures for a petition calling for Acta to be scrapped.

Welcoming the veto by MEPs, Alex Wilks, Avaaz's campaign director, claimed that "axing Acta is a historic victory for people power against corporate control" before warning the Commission in the future to "include the public and Parliament from the start, rather than try to bulldoze treaties through."

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