“Hello democracy, goodbye Acta,” read the placards brandished by members of the European Parliament. The celebrations followed an unprecedented vote on 4 July that killed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in Europe, at least for the time being.
It is the first time that the Parliament has used its full power, granted in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, to reject an international trade agreement. With 478 MEPs voting against Acta, 39 in favour and a whopping 165 abstentions, the vote is a slap in the face for the European Commission, which had pushed the Parliament to approve the treaty.
Acta is an agreement to enforce intellectual property rights in the EU and other countries including Mexico, the US and Japan. To enter into force, it would have had to be signed off by the European Parliament and ratified by all 27 EU member states.
But the treaty drew protests across Europe, with 2.8 million signing a petition urging the Parliament to scrap it. The debate among MEPs culminated in a vote that united greens, liberals and social democrats in opposing Acta, while dividing the assembly’s largest political group, the centre-right European People’s Party.
David Martin, a Labour MEP from the UK who drafted the Parliament’s opinion against Acta, said after the vote: “The Commission and the Council [that represents member states’ governments] will now be aware that they cannot overrun the Parliament, which represents and defends citizens’ rights.”
Amelia Andersdotter, an MEP from the Swedish Pirate Party, drafted the opinion of the Parliament’s committee for research and industry issues against Acta. She agrees that the vote may change the balance between EU institutions, at least until the next elections in 2014.
“The Parliament has dedicated a lot of time to pondering the issue,” and listening to analyses from different sides, Andersdotter says. “We made the political investigation. We have no reason to allow ourselves to be bullied” by the Commission, she told Research Europe.
Jean-Pierre Audy, a centre-right MEP from France, is among the 39 MEPs who voted for Acta. “We won’t keep our researchers or artists [in Europe] if they are not properly remunerated, and they won’t be properly remunerated if their intellectual property rights are not protected,” he says.
Audy says he is “baffled” by how few MEPs shared his view, although he applauds the manner in which Acta was rejected. “I am proud to have a Parliament that exercises its prerogative and political mandate,” he says.
Acta opponents, including civil rights organisations, argue that the text was too vague and could harm innovation, privacy and the free flow of information.
“The logic behind intellectual property protection is to create temporary monopolies on the use of inventions and creations in order to develop an incentive to innovate,” explained the European Digital Rights association. “By expanding the protection of these monopolies and reducing flexibility, Acta builds barriers to innovation and competition.”
Andersdotter, who voted against the treaty, says that Acta addressed the wrong problems. In Belgium for example, scientists can use patented biotechnology without paying a license fee if they do research on or with the patented invention. But the situation differs between countries, Andersdotter says. “Acta punishes those who cannot keep track of different legal regimes within the EU. It’s better to create a more predictable, harmonised system.”
The Commission and many businesses had argued that Acta was necessary to address gaps in the existing system and protect Europe’s economy. In a letter to MEPs before the vote, Philippe de Buck, director-general of industry lobby Business Europe, described counterfeiting as a “global scourge that threatens the health and safety of consumers, destroys thousands of jobs and supports the most contemptible criminal activity”.
The Commission promoted Acta as a “defence of our livelihoods”. After the vote, trade commissioner Karel de Gucht made clear that he would continue seeking the European Court of Justice’s opinion on the treaty, suggesting that he is not going to let the matter rest.
Big businesses want [Acta] to preserve the intellectual property system as it is because they profit from it, says Vincent Borrel, co-founder and head of research at Paris-based IT company Swelen. Yet “the way we exchange information has changed”, he says. “The intellectual property model has to be completely reviewed.”
The Parliament now appears to be a credible channel for such ideas. “The Parliament realises that it is the only EU body that has democratic legitimacy, and that it has to use it,” says Borrel.
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