European democracy’s victory in a treaty’s defeat

July 06, 2012, Friday/ 16:37:00

STRASBOURG -– In an era when effective global cooperation seems to be in short supply, the failure to approve a major international treaty would hardly seem to be cause for celebration.

But the European Parliament’s rejection of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is a milestone for European democracy. Rarely has a debate on an international treaty been so intense and engaged so many people across Europe and beyond. ACTA, negotiated by a group of industrialized countries to fight counterfeiting and enforce intellectual-property rights, provoked widespread criticism from civil-society organizations for the lack of transparency in the process used to formulate it. In the European Parliament, we tried to redress these shortcomings. Over the last four months, we held countless meetings, hearings, workshops, and online conversations with civil-society representatives and all of the concerned parties, to make sure that all opinions were properly heard. The massive mobilization on this issue culminated in a petition addressed to the European Parliament signed by more than 2.8 million citizens. Their engagement shows that a truly European public opinion, transcending national borders, is alive and well. I personally have learned a lot from this thorough, open-minded, and respectful debate – and took part in it both online and off.

Digital communications technology has led more people than ever to participate in the public conversation about their common European future – and to realize that they can influence Europe’s politics directly. This two-way communication is vital for a multinational law-making institution like the European Parliament.

The vote against ACTA was not a vote against intellectual-property protection. On the contrary, the European Parliament staunchly supports the fight against counterfeiting, which harms European companies, workers, and consumers. If the issue were protection of physical goods, whether clothes or medicine, from fakery and fraud, neither I nor virtually any of my colleagues would have opposed ACTA.

But the majority of Members of the European Parliament believes that ACTA is the wrong solution to fight online piracy – a sentiment shared by many citizens. Most MEPs believe that ACTA is too vague, leaving room for abuse and causing concern about its impact on privacy, civil liberties, creativity, innovation, and the free flow of information. Given the importance of intellectual-property protection for European producers, we hope that the European Commission will come forward with new proposals.

In the meantime, at least two lessons should be learned from the rejection of ACTA. First, the European Parliament has a long tradition of defending personal freedoms and fundamental rights, and European citizens can trust us to defend them. The Internet is and will increasingly be a format for the defense and regulation of human rights and civil liberties. ACTA is not the first time that the European Union has been called upon to regulate in a new area; it will not be the last. While we must take all possible measures to fight piracy, we must never do so at the expense of what has made the Internet a revolutionary technology: its freedom and openness. Second, and most important, Europe’s citizens want to participate and engage in European matters. Inclusion, openness, transparency, and controversy are vital to the EU’s democratic life. And, increasingly, Europe’s people look to the European Parliament as their forum, the place where their will is represented, and thus where democracy in the EU is safeguarded. That makes the European Parliament an institution that everyone must take into account.

Martin Schulz is President of the European Parliament. © Project Syndicate 2012

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