The shocking arrogance and ignorance of the European Commission

Perhaps it is just me, perhaps I am still too easily shocked in this day and age and I should develop tougher skin. It is also possible that I am just waking up to this and that this attitude is considered normal. Or perhaps the European Commission is indeed shockingly arrogant when it comes to their opinion on mass involvement in a democratic process. What am I talking about? Well, the minutes of a meeting the EC held on Wednesday 22 February 2012 (pdf) and what certain EC members had to say about ACTA during that meeting.

Of course the European Commission is not to be confused with the European Parliament. Rather, the EC is responsible for the day to day operation of the European Union. This means the EC is quite a powerful entity within the framework of the EU though it is bound to the same democratic tenets as the Union. In theory.

ACTA was item 9.1 on the agenda of the February 22 meeting. The tone of this meeting illustrates how members of the EC apparently think about the involvement of citizens in the government of the EU, with regards to ACTA specifically. It all begins with the introduction of point 9.1 by the EC president, José Manuel Barroso. In the opening statement, he says the following.

The PRESIDENT introduced the topic, commenting on the intensity and scale of the public debate and the organised campaign against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).

<SNIP>

He therefore felt that the Court of Justice of the European Union should be asked to confirm the Commission’s position in this matter, namely that ACTA was consistent and compatible with the Treaties and with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Looking at this statement we can see some of the arrogance already. Reading between the lines, we can infer that the intensity of the “organised campaign” against ACTA was unexpected and unwelcome. Next, notice how the ACTA agreement should be presented to the EU Court of Justice. The intention is not to ask the EU Court to examine ACTA but rather to ask the Court to confirm what the EC thinks of it, i.e. that ACTA does not conflict with existing laws and treaties and will not violate fundamental rights, such as the right to free speech. I think that should be a question for the EU Court and is not for the EC to decide.

These lines display arrogance of a monumental scale and show that the president of the EC does not understand social networks. Arrogance, because apparently the silent masses were not supposed to protest or object to ACTA at all. Apparently, we should simply shut up and trust the EUSSR our national and EU governments. Well Mr. Barroso, what do you expect? The EC negotiates an agreement in secret, an agreement that threatens our fundamental right to free speech, that threatens net neutrality, that threatens the way we access information on the Internet, etc., etc. without any representation of EU citizens, without any transparency and when this leaks out via Wikileaks, you are surprised that the “great unwashed” object to this?
Further, Mr. Barroso demonstrates his ignorance of how social networks work. There was and is no organized campaign against ACTA. There is no single entity responsible for the worried phone calls to members of the European Parliament, for the many email messages members of the EP have received, for the protests online and on the streets of Europe. Rather, what you have is a large number of worried, disgruntled citizens who act on their own and communicate with other worried, disgruntled citizens using social networks, among other lines of communication. If you call that an organized campaign then so is viral marketing. The opposition against ACTA is a grassroots movement at best.

After the introduction by Mr. Barroso, several other members of the EC voiced their opinion. Among them was of course Karel de Gucht, as the EU head of trade. He started out by saying that:

the absence of a vote in favour in the European Parliament or failure by the Member States to ratify the agreement would have a very damaging effect on the Union’s credibility in trade policy and other areas such as intellectual property rights.

Notice that almost exactly the same wording was used in an IFPI lobbying letter of several weeks ago, that I have linked to here before. An interesting review of this letter can be found here.  That letter states, among other things:

Failure to do so [ratify ACTA]  will irrevocably affect Europe’s credibility as a trusted global trade partner

You’ll notice the similarity, I’m sure. Is it a coincidence that the EU head of trade uses wording very similar to that found in a lobbying letter from the music industry? Of course they may share the same view but I find this a bit suspect. He further remarked the following.

the intense media campaign which was unleashed in Europe, instigated largely by the social networks, had since led a number of Union Heads of State or Government to decide to delay signature or ratification of the agreement by their national parliaments. He added that the campaign had also had a considerable influence on Members of the European Parliament and, following recent contacts with various political groups, he now felt it would be difficult to muster a majority in favour of ACTA within the EP.

Emphasis was added by me. I don’t know what he’s been watching and/or reading, but Mr. de Gucht…what media campaign? I’ve barely seen anything about ACTA in the mainstream media. In fact, I even wrote an article about that a few weeks ago. There was some coverage about the street protests, but that has largely been it. That in and of itself is quite odd, really. I realise that the opposition against ACTA and a few Heads of State becoming confused or rethinking their position might be troublesome for ACTA supporters but that is how democracy works.

Mr. de Gucht had a few more interesting things to say about ACTA.

He pointed out first of all that he had persuaded the European Union’s international partners – not without difficulty – to make public the reports on the negotiations, and that it was therefore wrong to accuse the Commission of failing to ensure that the process as a whole was fully transparent.

Not quite true, of course. After all, there was nobody forcing the EC to enter into any secret negotiation in the first place. They could have said that they would not sit at the negotiation table unless the whole process was transparent and open to review. As it stands, they failed to do that. So what we have now is better than nothing but far from what should have been.

He noted that opposition had increased in the run-up to January’s planned vote in the US Congress on two legislative initiatives – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) – aimed at increasing the protection of intellectual property rights on the Internet; in the end the vote had not been held, following a hostile campaign by social networks and the loss of White House support.

Again, we see this campaign thing mentioned. He keeps using that word but I don’t think it means what he thinks it means. There was no hostile campaign against SOPA, PIPA or ACTA. Rather, it was protests gaining momentum, inspiring each other and meanwhile increasing awareness among the general public. Nothing was coordinated by a single entity. They were spontaneous protests, organized by worried people, nothing more. Again social networks take the blame for ACTA not becoming a reality…yet.

All in all, there were three more members (Viviane Reding, Neelie Kroes and Michel Barnier) in the meeting who mentioned that social networks were somehow responsible for the failure of ACTA and that social networks organized campaigns, organized protests and even organized media campaigns. It is clear that these senior EU politicians don’t grasp the power of social networks to inform people and to increase public awareness. There was a consensus that social networks should be incorporated in existing EC communication methods. I fear this is “EC speak” for controlling attempts of social networks.

The amount of arrogance and ignorance displayed in this one meeting of the European Commission is simply staggering. Apparently they believe that:

  • There is nothing wrong with ACTA as it is.
  • We have done nothing wrong or questionable by engaging in secret negotiations that could very realistically conflict with current legislation and violate certain fundamental human rights.
  • Social media are breeding grounds for protests and hostile campaigns against that which we decide.
  • European citizens have no business protesting against the things we decide for them. Instead they should trust us and obey.

And this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is exactly why so many people are disgruntled with “Europe”. Expensive, authoritarian, non-transparent and we can also add arrogant and ignorant to the list.