A lot of prestige had been building up toward today’s vote in the International Trade committee (INTA), which was about to give its recommendation to the European Parliament on the ACTA treaty.
Six months ago, it looked like a no-brainer. Then, protests on the streets in Poland appeared, spreading through Europe like wildfire. The Polish government promised to put ratification of ACTA on hold, pending the outcome of the European Parliament. Shortly thereafter, so did pretty much everybody else.
So, all eyes on the European Parliament.
I have written before on why ACTA lives or dies with the acceptance of Europe: if two of the world’s three largest economies do not accept a trade treaty, it does not exist. China (#3) is not a party to ACTA, and it is being pushed by the United States (#2). If the European Union rejects it, the treaty is without practical effect.
So, again, all eyes on the European Parliament.
For an acceptance or rejection in the European Parliament, one committee becomes primarily responsible for every issue, recommending a course of action to their colleagues. For the many issues handled every day, this is usually a very helpful process – getting input from the people most knowledgeable on the topic. For complex topics, another committee can sometimes join in, sending their own recommendation to the responsible committee in turn.
For ACTA, there have been four such advisory committees in addition to the responsible main committee. Those four were Industry, Civil Liberties, Development, and Legal Affairs. They voted on May 31 and June 4, and all voted to recommend a rejection. This was encouraging for the net activists, very encouraging, but didn’t really say anything about the vote in International Trade – the main committee – for such a high-profile issue.
There has been no shortage of stunts pulled that were, at best, questionable. Yesterday at 18:00, the person responsible for ACTA in the European Commission (roughly the executive branch of Europe), Karel de Gucht, held a firebrand speech to the committee, telling them how to vote. He added that if Parliament votes the wrong way, he’ll just re-submit ACTA to the next parliament (!). He was later rightfully scolded by some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for showing an unacceptable level of disrespect for the separation of powers and for the democratic institution of Parliament.
So this morning, the INTA committee gathered for its vote. Some industry group had managed to put up a poster across the entire door, urging them to vote for adoption. This breaks a very long set of very bureaucratic rules and raised quite a few eyebrows. The room was filled to and over capacity – TV cameras were lining the walls, and people were standing in the back and along the sides, all seats being taken in the quite large room. INTA had 32 items on its agenda, starting at 10:00, and ACTA was last.
When an issue is adopted or rejected in committee, the committee starts out from a draft report suggesting a stance it should take, and then, any MEP on the committee can suggest a change – an amendment – to the draft. The draft report in INTA said that the committee recommends parliament to reject ACTA (“withhold its consent”). Some MEPs wanted these particular words to be replaced by others, so there were some amendments on the table. The two first amendments said the exact same thing – replace the words “reject ACTA” with “adopt ACTA” – and the third replaced “reject ACTA” with “postpone a decision until the European Court of Justice has said whether ACTA is legal or not.”
The party group lines were quite defined. The positions had been established, the prestige had been bet, the trenches had been dug. Those in favor of ACTA were the EPP and the ECR party groups, comprising almost exactly half of Parliament, and those against were the rest.
INTA started out with 29 MEPs present, and everybody kept counting who was present to try to figure out which side had the majority. Early counts said that the for and against sides had 14 votes each, so there was frantic activity figuring out where the 29th vote went.
Then, mid-session, an INTA MEP with voting rights showed up, bumping the total vote count to 30. Lather, rinse and repeat all the frantic guesses about majorities for ACTA.
Fifteen minutes later, repeat the same thing happening all over again as the 31st MEP appeared in committee.
At 11:30, the INTA committee finally got to the thirty-second item on today’s agenda, ACTA. The first thing that happened was that the first two amendments, those wanting to adopt ACTA, were withdrawn.
This led us to the situation where there was not even a proposal on the table to adopt ACTA. It was “say no now”, or “decide later”. So ironically, the trade group who was breaking half of the rules in the book by putting the “adopt ACTA” poster on the outside of the committee door couldn’t even theoretically have their will.
Moment of truth. Amendment three, changing “reject” to “postpone”. The vote was called, the vote was closed, and the numbers came up on screen. 13 votes in favor of the amendment, 19 votes against it, no abstains. WE WON! WE WON!
19 plus 13 is … thirty-two. There are 31 MEPs. There was one vote too many. The vote was repeated, but at this time, it was practically over: one vote less from either side would not change the outcome. The amendment would be rejected, and the draft report would be adopted, recommending the European Parliament to reject ACTA.
The new vote said 19-12. The amendment was defeated by 19-12, and the draft report recommending a rejection of ACTA was adopted by the same numbers.
Thunderous applause interrupted the session. WE WON!
So what does this mean? The ironic thing is that it doesn’t really mean much in terms of the adoption or rejection process. ACTA is such a high-profile issue that people are already decided, quite regardless of the committee recommendation. But it does give you an indication of how the majorities lie — and what the vote in plenary in about 10 days will look like.
In the press conference after the INTA session, the sentiment in the room was one of a post-mortem. “Exactly where did this ACTA drive the crazy train off the nearest cliff?” Even though the ultimate vote in the European Parliament plenary still remains, the vote some time July 2-5, the sentiment was clear: it’s over. (Hint: it’s actually not. Not at all.)
Everybody in the press conference reiterated at today’s vote would not have had this outcome without energetic and persistent activity from citizens, urging MEPs to oppose ACTA. Yes, that’s you: you should pat yourself on the shoulder here.
In the press conference, we also learn that the reason for the large majority in INTA against ACTA was due to Polish MEPs not following the party lines, but referring to their home constituencies and saying they couldn’t do anything but reject. This changed the majority from harrowingly even between adoption and rejection, to having a safe margin on the side of rejection. It is a reasonable assumption that this phenomenon will carry over to the parliament at large.
Thank you, Poland!
5-0 to the Internet. Now, on to the final vote in July and ACTA’s final dismissal.
(This article is also published at falkvinge.net.)