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40-year EU patent fight nears end

BRUSSELS -- While the eurozone crisis tears the bloc apart, hopes are rising this weekend that a four-decade battle over a single EU patent regime can finally be resolved — with a little bit of give and take from London.

Under the current system, companies and inventors big or small must acquire patents in individual European Union countries — a process that can cost up to 20,000 euros (US$25,200), including 14,000 euros in translation fees.

In comparison, U.S. applicants only spend around US$1,850 to protect their work.

An agreement has been reached among 25 EU states to launch a unified patent using English, French and German as its official languages — Italy and Spain on the outside, with Rome having lodged a formal complaint at the European Court of Justice.

And the only thing left to decide is the seat of the patent court — contested by London, Berlin, Paris and The Hague.

EU ambassadors meeting on Thursday to prepare a crucial summit of leaders on June 28-29 were told by EU president Herman Van Rompuy's staff that the bloc's “Mr. Fixit” will table a “fair and rational” proposal in a determined bid to break the impasse on his return from a Group of 20 summit in Mexico on Monday and Tuesday.

Van Rompuy's in-tray is dominated by Sunday's Greek elections, the possibility that Athens could leave the eurozone and preparations for a bailout for Spain's banks worth up to 100 billion euros, plus worries over Italy's capacity to escape contagion on financial markets.

But a victory on the patent battle — which Van Rompuy's chief of staff, Frans Van Daele, says was the biggest issue in town when he first entered the bloc's hierarchy 40 years ago — is seen as a vital contributor to economic growth going forward.

EU and diplomatic sources said on Friday that Van Rompuy has come up with a “very European” plan for the court's headquarters to be based in one country, with a branch office and support functions in another.

“After four decades of haggling and stalling we finally have a hard-fought deal on the substance,” the Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Maxime Verhagen, told AFP from Luxembourg on Friday.

“If I have the choice between the seat of the patent court in 10 years time, or have a full-fledged European patent now, I gladly choose the latter in the interest of us all,” Verhagen underlined, adding that the issue could no longer be “held hostage.”

There is still some hard bargaining to be done, with the potential for the patent issue to become snarled up again in wider rows about closer integration of European banking law or a tax on financial transactions.

However, the avowed goal is to broker a final agreement that can be announced at the summit, as a core change underpinning a “growth compact” intended to offset years of austerity.

Despite what one diplomat warned would be a “Paradise for lawyers, and Hell on Earth for entrepreneurs” if this is not resolved, Paris and London each insisted late on Friday that they are not for budging.

Gael Veyssiere, a Brussels-based spokesman for the French government, told AFP: “Last December, 23 of the 25 going forward backed Paris for the seat of the court.

“Let's see what Herman Van Rompuy comes up with — but the pressure is on the Brits.”

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