EU International Trade Committee Casts Negative Vote on Anti-Counterfeiting Pact
In a key vote last Thursday, the EU Committee on International Trade (INTA) officially recommended that the European Parliament (EP) reject the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The highly-anticipated result has cast further doubts over the ultimate approval of the treaty by the EU.
ACTA is a plurilateral trade pact seeking to strengthen global standards for the enforcement of intellectual property rights in order to combat counterfeiting and piracy. The deal's opponents fear that some of the provisions contained in the final text, which go beyond the standards set by the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), could have a detrimental effect on access to medicines and freedoms in the digital environment.
During the vote, INTA - the main EP committee discussing the anti-counterfeiting deal - had to decide whether to adopt a report by the committee's ACTA rapporteur, British Member of the European Parliament (MEP) David Martin.
Martin's draft report had urged the EP to withhold its consent to the treaty due to the pact's ambiguous definition of "commercial-scale" counterfeiting and online piracy, the role of internet service providers, and the possible seizures of in-transit generic medicines. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 May 2012)
INTA backed Martin's document with 19 votes in favour, with 12 voting against.
"I welcome the result of today's vote. I am pleased that the committee has acknowledged the problems I have identified in my report and has followed my recommendation to reject ACTA," Martin said after the vote.
"This was not an anti-intellectual property vote. This group believes Europe does have to protect its intellectual property but ACTA was too vague a document," Martin added.
INTA is the fifth EU committee to ask for the rejection of the pact. Within the past month, four other committees issued critical opinions of the treaty, arguing that the deal is incompatible with EU fundamental rights and could have negative impacts on business and on the health of people living in developing countries. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 June 2012)
Move to delay vote blocked
INTA also rejected an amendment to the report that would have postponed the full Parliament's vote until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) - the EU's highest Court - rules on the treaty's compatibility with current European laws. The European Commission had announced in February that it would be referring the pact to the ECJ to assess its compatibility with the 27-country bloc's fundamental rights and freedoms; the issuing of the ruling is expected to take up to a year. (See Bridges Weekly, 22 February 2012)
Speaking to the trade committee a day prior to their vote, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht urged MEPs to vote in favour of the delay and reaffirmed his stance regarding the potential benefits of ACTA for the EU economy.
"As I have said before, ACTA is not an attack on our liberties, it is a defence of our livelihoods," De Gucht argued.
"You may decide that the European Parliament should rush to condemnation of this agreement... but on an issue of the correct interpretation of fundamental rights, you may prefer to hear the authoritative view of the Court of Justice," he concluded.
According to De Gucht, even if the EP does vote against the anti-counterfeiting pact before the EU court issues its ruling, the Commission will still pursue an ECJ decision on the treaty's compatibility with existing EU law.
In addition, should the court find that ACTA is indeed in line with EU law, De Gucht said, he could again seek the EP's consent to the deal in the future.
Mixed response from civil society
The INTA vote drew a mixed response from civil society groups, with those in favour of the decision praising the committee for "[saying] yes to democracy and fundamental rights."
"The way is now paved for a quick and total rejection of ACTA by the European Parliament," said Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson of the citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.
However, a coalition of organisations in the creative industry called the outcome "a disappointment to Europe's creative, innovative and manufacturing sectors."
If the European Parliament rejects ACTA, "it will send a negative signal to Europe's trading partners and to investors around the globe, especially since much of the debate to date has been fuelled by unfounded rumour and misinformation," said Jeffrey Hardy, Director of the International Chamber of Commerce's Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy initiative.
The European Parliament is expected to take a final decision on ACTA in July.
ICTSD reporting; "Acta set to fail after Europe's trade committee votes against it," THE GUARDIAN, 21 June 2012; "European trade committee votes to reject piracy treaty," BBC, 21 June 2012.