An MEP who sharply opposes free trade agreements has been tapped to lead negotiations in the European Parliament over new export controls for surveillance technologies, sparking fears he will be “anti-trade” and double down on the European Commission’s controversial plans.
German Green MEP Klaus Buchner (Ökologisch-Demokratische Partei) slapped in a complaint last week against CETA, the EU’s troubled free trade agreement with Canada, at Germany’s constitutional court, before he was put in charge of the export control bill.
“If there were an anti-trade committee in the European Parliament, he’d be the chairman,” one lobbyist said on condition of anonymity.
Buchner’s appointment to shepherd the export control bill through the Parliament prompted another wave of frustration for companies that are already up in arms over the plans to change the EU rules.
Several lobbyists who criticised the new bill said Buchner’s opposition to free trade agreements suggests that he might try to toughen rules that the Commission proposed last month.
Another lobbyist said the MEP’s complaint against CETA is “not a good sign” and show he’s “either against or sceptical of trade”.
Buchner said those critics have the wrong impression – his legal complaint against CETA specifically addressed “certain deficits” in the deal and has nothing to do with exports.
“These so-called modern trade agreements are not really free trade agreements. They change a country’s internal system. There are some points I certainly oppose, for example the joint committee in CETA has some points that are not justified in a democracy,” Buchner told euractiv.com.
Critics of the CETA joint committee argue that EU countries should be involved in decisions on the agreement, and not be represented only by European Commission and Canadian officials.
Buchner told EURACTIV the Commission’s proposal to sharpen export controls for potentially harmful products is “more liberal” than his own position and requires licenses for fewer products that he’d like. But he predicted negotiations over the bill would take a “long time” because it will be difficult to agree on a list of technologies that can damage human rights.
The bill must be approved by the Parliament and national governments before it can go into effect. Talks will likely start in the coming month, according to Buchner.
Industry associations and technology companies lobbied the Commission before the executive proposed the stricter new export controls last month. The final bill that came out of the Commission was softened compared to an earlier draft, and included restrictions on fewer technologies that could be used for surveillance or other human rights abuses.
Under the new rules, companies will need special export licenses to sell mobile telecommunication interception equipment, intrusion software, monitoring centres, data retention systems and digital forensics outside the EU.
Privacy advocates have pushed for export controls on surveillance technologies after it was revealed that some countries purchased software from European companies to spy on dissidents during the Arab Spring protests. London-based NGO Privacy International said the Commission’s proposal would “help protect human rights across the world”.
But many firms still complain that the rules will force them to spend too much time and money applying for export licenses and leave room for wide interpretation, for example when it comes to defining what products could harm human rights.
Buchner’s homeland of Germany is ahead of the game when it comes to the EU’s tighter export rules. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel introduced a national rule last year, but critics of the European bill say the German law is more lenient and doesn’t restrict products because they might be used to damage human rights.
NGOs and the Parliament wanted the EU rules to go a step further than that and include a clause that would make it harder to export anything that could be used to violate human rights.
“The export controls have come because there was misuse of the exported goods. So there was violation of human rights definitely coming from Germany,” Buchner said of the German law.
Privacy researchers have indicated that Germany has one of Europe’s largest surveillance technology industries. British and French companies are also big producers of surveillance technologies, according to an index created by Privacy International.
Even with national rules already in place, German industry groups have been among the most vocal critics of the Commission’s new proposal. The German government was one of nine EU countries that signed a memo protesting the draft bill’s controls on technology products before it was announced in September.
Germany’s constitutional court court decided last Friday (14 October) that Germany could sign off on CETA, despite Buchner’s and several other complaints.