Bulgaria will suspend the ratification of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement international treaty (ACTA), Economy Minister Traicho Traikov told a news conference in Sofia on February 14.
ACTA's remit to is to strengthen international co-operation to fight counterfeit goods and it equates digital copyrights infringement to the counterfeiting of physical goods, which, online freedom groups say, opens the door to strict policing of online content.
Among its strongest supporters are companies from the entertainment industry and the pharmaceutical sector, since ACTA would also tighten controls on generic drugs trade, but is opposed by technology companies, who say that the treaty will stifle innovation, and civil society groups.
Traikov said that Bulgaria's Cabinet will vote on a motion to suspend ACTA ratification at its next meeting on February 15. Asked whether Bulgaria would withdraw from ACTA altogether, Traikov said that a decision in that sense would be taken once the European Union reaches a consensus opinion on the matter.
The European Commission was among the parties that negotiated the treaty for the past five years. Reports have claimed that the US trade representative's office drafted the bulk of the provisions covering digital copyrights infringement and was also the party that insisted on all participants in the talks signing strict non-disclosure agreements.
European Parliament, which has to give its approval to any international agrement that the European Union signs, has been critical of the secretive nature of the negotiations on ACTA. Its rapporteur on the matter, French MEP Kader Arif, resigned his position on January 26, the same day that 22 EU member states, Bulgaria included, signed the treaty in Tokyo.
Arif said that he wanted to "denounce in the strongest manner the process that led to the signing of this agreement: no association of civil society [and] lack of transparency from the beginning".
"This agreement might have major consequences on citizens' lives, and still, everything is being done to prevent the European Parliament from having its say in this matter. That is why today, as I release this report for which I was in charge, I want to send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation. I will not take part in this masquerade," he said.
Arif's sentiment was strongly echoed throughout Europe, with rallies against ACTA organised in several countries, culminating in a mass protest on February 11, when tens of thousands of people marched in dozens of European cities. In Sofia, turnout estimates ranged between 4000 and 8000, with smaller marches held in other cities in the country.
Bulgaria becomes the third Eastern European EU member state to announce it was suspending ACTA ratification, following Poland and the Czech Republic, which did so last week.
Should MEPs reject ACTA when European Parliament votes on the issue it would invalidate the EU's participation as a signatory party, releasing EU member states from any obligation to ratify the treaty. A vote in European Parliament is expected in June.
With public opinion strongly against ACTA, the Party of European Socialists (PES) has already called on European Parliament to vote against the treaty, describing it as "wrong in both content and process". Recently-elected European Parliament president Martin Schulz, a member of PES, criticised the agreement "in its current form" on February 13.
The European Commission continues to defend ACTA, saying that its provisions did not require changes in EU law, that the treaty would not limit civil liberties or monitor consumers' online activity. ACTA critics, however, say that the treaty uses very vague language that could be used by signatory parties to justify the implementation of harsher laws.
The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) supports the treaty, but could find it hard to muster sufficient votes for ACTA ratification to pass in European Parliament, as MEPs from Eastern European EPP member parties, such as Bulgaria's ruling party GERB, have said that they would vote against the treaty when it comes up for approval.