The Commission has decided to refer the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement to the European Court of Justice, halting for now ratification of ACTA by 22 EU countries. The Commission's moved was welcomed by leading European political parties that fear the international accord would trample rights and freedoms.

The European Commission is going to ask the EU's highest court to assess whether ACTA is incompatible with the EU's fundamental rights - such as freedom of expression and information, protections of personal information and intellectual property.

"I’m confident that there is nothing wrong with ACTA, not at all, that it is a fine treaty, and that it will protect our intellectual property… We don’t have oil and gas, we don’t have the minerals in our soil, we can only take out of the soil what is in the soil. What we really have is our intellectual property, so we should be anxious to protect this,” Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht said yesterday (22 February).

The development took place following the mobilisation of civil society throughout the EU against ACTA and with several governments announcing that they would freeze the ratification until the European Parliament takes a position. There appears to be widespread opposition to the treaty In Parliament.

"In recent weeks, the ratification process of ACTA has triggered a Europe-wide debate on ACTA, the freedom of the internet and the importance of protecting Europe’s intellectual property for our economies," De Gucht said.

The Commissioner said he shared people’s concern for these fundamental freedoms and on what ACTA will really mean for them. However, he deplored the "misinformation or rumour" about ACTA that has spread through social media sites and blogs in recent weeks.

De Gucht reiterated the Commission's view that ACTA should protect Europe's economy and help protect jobs that are currently lost because counterfeited and pirated goods worth €200 billion were floating around on the world markets.

Asked by EurActiv if the referral to the Court of Justice could be interpreted as a victory for demonstrators, De Gucht said he was not looking at the issue "in terms of victory and defeat".

'Commission not to be blamed'

ACTA is a complicated treaty, he said. "It would make ample sense that the ECJ would balance fundamental rights that are part of that whole discussion. There is no fundamental right that is absolute. You have the freedom of expression, you have the access to information, you have data protection, you have the right to property, also to intellectual property, and it's up to the European Court of Justice to give guidance – what are the limits that the EU in any case should respect.

"I am quite confident that we have done that in the ACTA negotiations. I'm sure of my case," he said, adding that in any case, the EU Commission was "not to blamed".

The ratification process will be suspended pending the courts' opinion, De Gucth said.

The Parliament's leading political groups hailed the Commission's decision, but their interpretation seems to differ. The Green/European Free Alliance group said the court referral was "hopefully a nail in ACTA's coffin".

The Socialists and Democrats called for the debate to continue pending the ECJ decision. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe called for revamping the legislation to address concerns. On the other side of the debate, the European People’s Party group has expressed support for the treaty.