Time is running out for European Patent Office president Benoit Battistelli.
After years of turmoil at the international organization thanks to his heavy-handed reform efforts, it seems that patience at the political level is finally giving out.
In the past week, two documents have been posted online indicating that the Dutch government and the International Labour Organization have had enough of the Frenchman and are prepared to take steps to make sure he is ousted.
In the first – a February 23 letter [PDF, in Dutch] from the Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders to the chairman of its House of Representatives – Koenders reports that he has warned EPO's vice president Guillaume Minnoye that "the internal conflict has been going on for too long and the situation now demands rapid improvement."
He warns: "If no visible improvements take place in the short term in the relations within the EPO, I see no other option but to discuss the situation at a high political level with the member states of the European Patent Organization."
Although the language may seem soft, for a diplomatic letter it is tantamount to a declaration of war.
Only the EPO's Administrative Council – made up of representatives of European nations – can fire Battistelli before his term ends; a situation that imbues so much political inertia that Battistelli has been able to carry out a years-long attack on his organization.
After several of his reform efforts were fought by staff representatives and independent patent judges, Battistelli has embarked on a widely condemned campaign to silence critics, including: improper and prolonged investigations into individuals; sham disciplinary hearings; constant rewriting of rules to give himself more power over the organization; and a brusque personal attitude that has seen him storm out of meetings as well as refuse to consider both informal and formal rebukes.
When it was determined that the disciplinary hearings put in place by the president's team broke the laws of the countries in which the EPO has offices – including Holland – the EPO asserted that as an international organization it was not bound by those laws. It took the case to the Dutch Supreme Court where it ultimately prevailed after the Dutch government worried about the dangerous precedent it may set for other international organizations.
But, as Koenders points out in his letter: "This immunity does not prevent the host country from entering into discussion with the management of the EPO about the continuing conflict between management and staff of the EPO. Especially now that this conflict has become part of the public and political debate."
The clear anger of the Dutch government against Battistelli is matched by the French government, whose minister has also spoken in scathing terms about his tenure, and by the regional German government in Bavaria (where the EPO is headquartered), which put forward a lengthy sanction of Battistelli that called for the German state government to "take action accordingly."
In addition to politicians, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has also published an extraordinary paper to be considered at a meeting of its governing body later this month in Geneva.
The paper [PDF] is titled Update on discussions with the European Patent Organisation on possible future action to improve the Tribunal's caseload, and is focused on "the large volume of complaints filed by officials of the European Patent Office."
Last year, the ILO reached two damning decisions against the EPO and its Appeals Committee when it found not only that the EPO had improperly handled appeals, but the EPO's Appeals Committee itself was illegitimate.
Battistelli had placed four staff members – all union leaders – on administrative leave. When they appealed the decision he ended up stacking the appeals committee against them, breaking the organization's own rules.
The upshot of the ILO's decision was that every internal appeal since October 2014 would need to be reheard by a newly constituted appeals committee. But last month Battistelli responded by trying to coerce staff representatives onto a new committee, prompting staff to refuse to take part until he followed a directive by the EPO's administrative council to suspend investigations until they had been independently investigated.
The ILO paper to its governing board notes that the EPO's actions have "been the subject of hundreds of complaints already before the Tribunal" – representing 73 per cent of the total number of pending ILO cases.
Resolving them would result in "a significant decrease in the Tribunal's current caseload," it notes, while also warning, "if that system does not manage to deal with them appropriately," the cases are "likely to be referred back to the Tribunal."
The problem is so significant, it warns, that it is actually impairing the ability of the Tribunal to function. The paper, if approved, would authorize the ILO's Director-General to "explore all possible means for ensuring its effective and unhindered operation in the interest of all international organizations that have recognized its jurisdiction."
What this means in reality is that Battistelli's actions have started negatively impacting other organizations. As a result, an increasing number of high-level officials are planning to take the issue up with their peers across Europe.
Or in the simplest terms: the reign of King Battistelli is rapidly coming to an end. ®
Hat tip to Techrights for spotting the two letters.