The European Parliament has voted to make every EU member state take a common approach to cross-border privacy and defamation cases. The move follows a campaign by UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis.
An EU Regulation immediately becomes law in all member states, and the Parliament has just amended a Regulation known as 'Rome II' that decides what happens when the laws of two countries contradict each other and no contract is in place to decide the outcome.
The Council of Ministers had opposed a previous extension of the Regulation to include privacy and defamation, but the Parliament has voted to re-include it. The deadlock is likely to proceed to the formal conciliation procedure, where MEPs and Ministers in equal numbers will attempt to find a compromise.
The Rome II Regulation is designed to govern cross-border disputes where there is no contract, and covers a large number of areas. Privacy and defamation have been the most controversial, though.
The Parliament's amendment suggests that in the case of print or broadcast media the law which should apply in disputes is the law of the country to which the publication or broadcast is most directed. If that is not an easy fact to determine, the relevant law will be the one of the country where editorial control is exercised.
Member States do not want the complex formula to be introduced. Media organisations are likely to back the plans because the other option is for the applicable law to be that of the country in which the defamed person lives. They argue that that would mean that media companies would have to know the privacy and defamation laws of every European country.
The Parliament's passing of the amendment could throw the process into turmoil. Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice Franco Frattini spoke before the vote was taken and said that "there is no way they [the amendments] will get through" the Council of Ministers.
"I am delighted that the European Parliament has decided again with such an overwhelming majority to underline it's for the original support first reading position," said Wallis. "We may not have reached the end of the story of Rome II; by again passing these amendments there will almost certainly have to be a conciliation process to iron out the final difficulties between the European law-making institutions."
"Rome II will allow us to know where we are within the legal diversity that is modern Europe, we at least need an agreed set of coherent rules; a set of rules that we can all apply to determine whose national law is to be used to sort out any given set of facts thrown up in front of our courts as a result of the increasingly mobile and cross border lives which our citizens live," she said.