Members of the European Parliament have reacted warily to news that negotiations on the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement have closed without the Parliament seeing the latest draft.
The European Commission and other negotiators issued a joint statement on Friday saying that the final round of Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta) negotiations had "concluded successfully" and that an agreed text would be released shortly. However, on Tuesday four MEPs issued a fresh statement highlighting reports of "contradictory remarks", such as US trade representative Ron Kirk saying the negotiations were "almost across the finish line", while an unnamed EU representative claimed there will be "no agreement" without "remaining gaps" being closed.
The four MEPs — Stavros Lambrinidis (Greece), Francoise Castex (France), Zuzana Roithova (Czech Republic) and Alexander Alvaro (Germany) — were the co-signatories of an earlier bipartisan declaration, demanding full transparency of the Acta negotiations and respect for citizens' privacy, which was adopted in early September by the whole Parliament.
"These contradictory remarks highlight exactly what is wrong with treating matters of such importance and sensitivity beneath a veil of secrecy," the MEPs said on Tuesday. "It appears that there is no credible way of knowing whether the negotiations are actually concluded or not.
"In case the agreement has indeed been initialled, we demand from the Commission to present the final Acta text to the European Parliament as soon as it is procedurally possible. It is the Parliament that will ultimately have to decide on rejecting or accepting the agreement, and a complete and thorough briefing of its members is now more urgent than ever," the MEPs added.
The MEPs, who span the political spectrum, also called on the European Council — the group of national leaders that must approve Acta based on the text negotiated by the Commission, before the Parliament is approached for its own approval — "not to proceed to any provisional application of the agreement, before the European Parliament has been given the chance to express its consent on the issue".
Acta is ostensibly a trade treaty, but its contents, as revealed in a mix of leaks and official draft releases, point to a wider set of international agreements that would, for example, give border guards the right to confiscate suspected counterfeit goods without an application by the trademark holder. Privacy campaigners have suggested this could extend to the searching of hard drives and media players at signatories' borders.
The text may also have included provisions to force ISPs in signatory countries to police their networks for copyright infringement and institute three-strikes policies to penalise and even disconnect suspected infringers. However, the most recent leaks — if genuine — indicate that these elements have been removed.
Another major obstacle in the negotiations has been the EU's insistence, opposed by the US, that Acta should protect geographically associated food names, such as Parmesan cheese. As with the rest of the supposedly finalised text, the resolution that was reached on this issue remains unclear.
Participants in the negotiations have included Australia, Canada, the European Union — represented by the European Commission, the EU Presidency (Belgium) and the EU member states — Japan, Korea, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and the US. China, a major source of counterfeit goods, is not involved.
The most recent round of negotiations, supposedly the last to take place, was in Japan last week. According to the Commission's statement on Friday, "participants in the negotiations constructively resolved nearly all substantive issues and produced a consolidated and largely finalised text of the proposed agreement, which will be submitted ad referendum to their respective authorities".
"The participants agreed to work expeditiously to resolve the small number of outstanding issues that require further examination in capitals, with a view to finalising the text of the agreement as promptly as possible," the Commission added. "The participants will publicly release the text of the agreement shortly."
The office of trade commissioner Karel De Gucht told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the finalised text should be made available within the next day or two.