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European Patent Office still in nosedive as union denies reaching deal

Olive branch may be more of a stunned snake

The Staff Union of the European Patent Office (SUEPO) has denied it is prepared a sign a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) between it and the patent organization – saying the document still contains significant flaws.

If true, the EPO – which examines and grants patent applications that are then applicable across Europe – faces a rocky few weeks in the buildup to a meeting of its administrative council on March 16-17.

At that meeting, 38 country representatives are due to discuss what to do about a breakdown in communications at the agency, and will also review a document that may censure EPO president Benoît Battistelli as well as insist he halt disciplinary proceedings against union leaders until an external review has been carried out.

Following a leak this week of a report from the council's board in which it noted "we have not been able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the president," we spoke to the EPO during which it assured us significant progress had been made on an MoU and that it was "very close to an agreement that was ready to sign."

We reported that the organization was holding out an olive branch to the staff union after years of fighting between the two groups.

A SUEPO representative vigorously denies the union is prepared to sign the agreement however, telling us that the most recent document the EPO presented still contains "massive flaws" and that the union is still some way from agreeing.

Subsequently, the EPO got back in contact with us to point out that there had been a "misunderstanding" during our conversation over SUEPO's willingness to sign the document. A similar misunderstanding also seemingly occurred when we reported that the revised version of the "request" to EPO management would remove direct criticism of Battistelli.

Battleground

Battistelli and his team have been at loggerheads with SUEPO since 2014, when he was reelected to the post for a further four years and started introducing a number of workplace reforms.

Disagreements over those reforms soon escalated into full-blown warfare when union representatives were suspected of anonymous attacks on executive team members and the leaking of embarrassing confidential documents. In response, the executive team and a new "investigative unit" were accused of using hidden cameras and PC key-loggers to build a disciplinary case against the rebels.

When Battistelli's approach led to threats of strike action, he responded by limiting the grounds on which SUEPO's members could strike, further fueling resentment. The management then took disciplinary action against a number of union representatives for their alleged actions, a process that is still ongoing and has in part led to a number of strikes by EPO staff.

Council business

With both sides seemingly at an impasse, the board of the EPO's administrative council met twice this month to discuss how to resolve the issue, and once with the president and his staff.

When their solution – an external review of the disciplinary actions – was rejected by Battistelli, they resolved to take it to the full council in March. In particular, a draft of the board's formal response specifically referenced the fact that the management team had failed to sign an MoU with its main union.

Soon after we reported the contents of that response, the EPO told us it was close to signing an MoU. After we reported that, the union strongly denied any such agreement was forthcoming.

What is the truth? The answer is that there are multiple truths and that by reporting on heated negotiations, we poured gasoline on an already flaming wreck.

One thing is for sure: at its March 16-17 meeting in Munich, the EPO's administrative council will need to do something if it wishes to avoid a full meltdown at the organization. ®

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