Tuesday, April 2, 2019

German government parties stall parliamentary process relating to EU copyright reform: democracy delayed is democracy denied

The infamous democratic deficit of the European Union is not just an issue relating to the EU institutions and their interinstitutional dealings, such as "trilogues" and similar negotiations. In democratic terms, the EU is a banana republic where votes are repeated until the result pleases the elites or decisions come into being by accident, such as the decision not to allow the European Parliament to vote on individual amendments to the copyright bill. But there's just as big a problem with the way the governments of most EU Member States sideline their national parliaments. In Sweden, the parliament's EU affairs committee tells its government how to vote in the EU Council (and there's a decent chance that Sweden will have to change its vote on the EU copyright reform bill from Yes to No soon, but the parliamentary decision isn't strictly binding).

What's happening in the same context--the EU Copyright Directive--in Germany is, however, another case of a government's contempt for the directly elected representatives of the people.

As per the current plan, the EU Council will try to adopt the copyright bill on April 15 at a Luxembourg meeting of the ministers for agriculture and fisheries. It wouldn't be a problem to adopt an uncontroversial bill without debate, and in that case it doesn't even matter what the ministers and state secretaries attending the meeting are primarily in charge of. But in the case of the proposed Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (which will be less digital as a result), it's just an attempt to avoid public scrutiny by minimizing attention and making it impossible to have any substantive debate (which would require a different type of minister to attend).

On Friday, the Left Party group in the German Bundestag (federal parliament) announced a motion for a resolution calling on the German government to oppose adoption of the bill in the EU Council. The countries that opposed the political agreement in February collectively account for approximately 24% of the total EU population; with Germany's 16% on top, the 35% quorum for a blocking minority would be more than met.

A parliamentary resolution wouldn't be binding on the German government, but it would have political weight. I quickly authored a lobbying guide for German activists seeking to influence the Bundestag vote.

Yesterday (Monday), the official website of the German federal parliament announced a plenary debate for this week's Thursday (April 4) at 5:15 PM local time, initially indicating that there might or might not be an immediate vote. Today (Tuesday), they added that a second motion to the same effect had been brought by the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP).

But later it became known, based on tweets by Petra Sitte, a member of the German federal parliament from the Left Party, and by a staffer of the Left Party's parliamentary group, that the government coalition parties (Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union, and Social Democratic Party) had decided to refer the matter to the relevant parliamentary committees.

As a result, it's virtually impossible that the German Bundestag can hold a plenary vote on this matter--which would have forced CDU/CSU and SPD to come clean. So far the CDU/CSU and SPD groups in the German parliament are just hiding behind the European Parliament's decision (where almost all SPD MEPs voted against the proposal, while all but one CDU/CSU MEPs voted in favor), and behind the intergovernmental negotiations between Germany and France that led to this ill-conceived proposal (which may even deprive EU users of such services as Amazon's Twitch, as Twitch CEO Emmett Shear reiterated after the EP vote).

With the parliamentary process in Germany being stalled, the only way that the Bundestag could still hold a plenary vote prior to a "fait accompli" at the EU level would be if the EU Council delayed the adoption of the bill. Theoretically, Germany could ask for more time, pointing to the parliamentary process at home that should unfold. But that's not what that government intends to do.

Basically, it appears the Franco-German agreement on Article 13 (now Article 17) was all about Merkel giving Macron a kind of consolation prize. The Macron regime will probably go down in history as one of the least successful and, ultimately, least popular governments in French history, not only but also because of the Yellow Vests protests. Macron gave speeches and authored op-eds for newspapers all over Europe to promote his vision of closer European integration, especially in the area of economic and monetary policy. If it were up to Merkel herself, or her minister of economic affairs and longtime trusted sidekick, Peter Altmaier, she'd hand him everything he wants on a silver platter. However, she and her domestic allies know very well that Macron's most ambitious proposals would meet significant resistance in Germany (and also in other Northern European countries).

In terms of IT industry policy, what Macron really wanted was the "Digital Tax." In principle, Merkel would like that idea, but it would be viewed by the Trump Administration as an act of trade war, leading to retaliation against Germany's automotive industry. That's why Germany tried to appear constructive, but actually didn't want to support Macron's idea. With Article 13 (now Article 17) of the EU Copyright Directive, an indirect digital tax is imposed on content-sharing platforms--though Europe is going to simply cut its nose to spite its face as this will harm small European platform companies and European consumers.

In other words, Macron lost the real battle. He can keep talking and writing about the digital tax and closer European integration, but he won't get even 10% of what he's looking for. His country is in disastrous shape: formerly known for a high-quality education system and smart population, it has statistically the least math-savvy students of all large EU Member States, with only 2% of them reaching the top performance level in the international TIMSS study applying uniform standards to test-takers around the globe. By comparison, Singapore is at 50% (25 times France), South Korea at 40% (20 times France), Russia at 20% (10 times France), the United States at 14% (7 times France), Germany at 5% (like Turkey), and France can only "compete" and compare with Persian Gulf states. There are some extremely smart, hard-working and talented people coming out of the French education system, but many of them get hired away. The brain drain won't stop, and bad policies such as the EU Copyright Directive will only serve to exacerbate the problem. Macron will keep talking about France as a "startup nation," but that's lip service at best and reality distortion at worst.

The German government parties want to help stabilize the Macron regime. Article 13 (now Article 17) was a stupid concession, and Merkel may have underestimated how many people would be outraged and worried--and what damage this would do to the way many ordinary citizens perceive EU democracy. Those parties are at risk of losing an entire generation of voters, and the leadership of the Social Democratic Party appears unrealistic enough to believe that by speaking out against upload filters while allowing the government to adopt the bill in the EU Council (and preventing the national parliament from holding a plenary vote in time), they can mislead people. Just like Merkel's CDU/CSU, the SPD may lose an entire generation of voters as a result of this. Case in point, "Herr Newstime," one of Germany's most popular YouTubers, announced a few days ago that he was leaving the SPD. The parliamentary resolution would have been one last chance for the SPD to correct its error and oppose Internet upload filters.

The Internet will figure this out. And the Internet won't forget.

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