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.
MEP Christofer Fjellner, EPP shadow rapporteur on ACTA, welcomed the Commission decision for referral to the European Court of Justice.
"As previously stated, the EPP Group takes very seriously the concerns raised by citizens on ACTA, regarding fundamental rights and freedoms and today's decision by the Commission shows that they also take these concerns very seriously.
"Our European industry depends very much on the protection of intellectual property rights. We therefore welcome any move that helps legal certainty, and every means to strengthen the fight against counterfeit products worldwide," Fjellner concluded.
Scottish MEP David Martin (Socialists and Democrats), responsible for the ACTA report in the European Parliament, welcomed the decision: "Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht today admitted that there are still many question marks about ACTA and what the implementation of the agreement, as it stands, would mean for citizens and for the freedom of the internet.
"The Parliament has been calling for more clarity for a long time, and we already requested legal opinions from several committees in the European Parliament. Now this ruling will be a good guarantee for the impact on fundamental rights.
"We will wait for the ECJ ruling before we draw conclusions, but an open political debate in the European Parliament is also necessary on the measures foreseen by ACTA. "We must guarantee a good balance between intellectual property rights, which are fundamental for the European economy and job creation, and individual freedoms."
Guy Verhofstadt, president of the liberal ALDE group, said: "It is a wise decision which the Commission took, and which the Parliament itself was considering. This agreement has raised too much concern among public opinion concerning the risks of censorship or cutoff of internet access, therefore the European contracting parties must take this into account. We can only have a calm debate on the ratification of ACTA if these fears are dispelled."
"In the meantime, the entire procedure has been frozen. The Commission should take this time to multiply its efforts to refine a modern and coherent legislation concerning internet copyright laws. "
Commenting on the announcement, Greens/EFA group home affairs spokesperson Jan Philipp Albrecht said: "The decision to refer ACTA to the ECJ is hopefully a nail in the coffin of this far-reaching and unnecessary agreement. The Greens have long called for this referral and, as such, welcome this overdue decision as an important step to ensuring ACTA does not come into force in Europe.
"The agreement should never have been concluded in the first place … The result of a legal evaluation will not replace the political procedure for verifying this agreement and assessing its far-reaching consequences however. The European Parliament and national parliaments will continue to scrutinise ACTA as part of the ratification process.
"Regardless of the outcome of an ECJ evaluation, the Greens believe ACTA is politically wrongheaded. Recent demonstrations have also shown the extent of public opposition. Against this background, the Greens will push to ensure the EP refuses to give its consent."
ACTA was first announced in late 2007, when the US, the EU, Switzerland and Japan said they would negotiate a new intellectual property enforcement agreement to counter the trade of counterfeit goods across borders.
According to former trade negotiators, EU countries attempted to clinch an agreement under the banner of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), but as members could not agree, like-minded nations formed ACTA.
The 52-page treat was signed by the US signed in October, along with Australia, Canada, Morocco, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. On 26 January, 22 European countries and the European Commission signed as well (the remaining being Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Estonia and Cyprus).
The Commission supports ACTA and sees benefits for European exporters and creators, ensuring they profit from a level playing field worldwide. The agreement will enter into force after ratification by six signatory states. None has ratified so far. The ratification by the European Parliament of the Commission's signature is also required.
- 29 Feb: The first exchange of views of the international trade parliamentary committee on ACTA will take place.
- 1 March: A public workshop in the European Parliament.
- Commission:Full text of ACTA in all EU languages
- Commission:Statement by Commissioner Karel De Gucht on ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement)
- European Union:Full text of ACTA in English:
- S&D:S&D welcome Commission's decision to take ACTA to the European Court of Justice
- PES:Commissioner De Gucht bows to public pressure on question of ACTA - Refers controversial text to European Court
- ALDE:"The Commission has made a wise decision," said Guy Verhofstadt
- EURACTIV Germany:ACTA: "Die Kommission knickt ein"