EU Parliament heats up ahead of crucial ACTA vote

Leading Parliamentary committee to vote on Thursday

The European Parliament's trade committee, INTA, is embroiled in argument before delivering its opinion on the controversial anti-piracy agreement, ACTA, on Thursday.

INTA is the lead committee examining the international agreement and its recommendation will carry weight with the rest of the Parliament. On Wednesday evening, the European Commission's trade representative Karel de Gucht spoke to the committee and made a last ditch attempt to get the committee to approve ACTA (anti-counterfeiting trade agreement) or at the very least postpone the crucial plenary vote of the whole Parliament, which is scheduled for July 3.

In the debate that followed the Commissioner's speech, conservatives were broadly in favor of postponing the plenary vote, while most liberals want the whole agreement rejected as soon as possible. The parliamentarian in charge of assessing the agreement, David Martin, also recommended rejecting it.

Now that the text of ACTA has been made final, and indeed signed by many E.U. member states, the Parliament cannot alter it. There are four possible outcomes. If the Parliament gives its consent, all 27 E.U. countries would still have to ratify it for the agreement to come into force.

Parliament could reject the agreement, meaning that it could not come into force. Parliament could choose not to reply at all, although this is highly unlikely. Or Parliament could decide to wait until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rules on the legality of the agreement.

In February the Commission referred ACTA to the ECJ to "assess whether ACTA is incompatible - in any way - with the E.U.'s fundamental rights and freedoms." Those opposed to ACTA have called this a time-wasting exercise.

The European People's Party said on Wednesday that it will call for the main plenary vote to be postponed until after the ECJ has ruled. The European Conservatives and Reformists group said it, too, will vote for a delay. "We can't just move the goalposts," said Syed Kamall. He added, however, that the group still has concerns about the agreement.

The Socialists and Democrats parliamentary group highlighted its concerns with the agreement. According to the group, ACTA would force ISPs to act as the police force of the Internet, the definition of commercial scale is not well defined and is therefore potentially dangerous, and the sanctions for breach of copyright are not proportional.

The Greens pointed out that they had asked for a referral to the ECJ during the negotiations, but said they had listened to citizens and would vote to reject ACTA. Speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, Niccolo Rinaldi said that postponing the final vote would show weakness in the Parliament. While the United European Left's Helmut Scholz said his group will vote to reject ACTA, which he described as "an attempt by the few to control the many".

Meanwhile rumors in the corridors of the Parliament suggest that the European People's Party will ask for Thursday's vote to be held in secret. This has outraged civil liberties groups that say it would allow members of political groups who are officially against ACTA to escape their political responsibility.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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Jennifer Baker

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