The central staff committee of the European Patent Office has sent a letter to the organization's board warning it of proposed changes that would further undermine their rights.
The letter to the board of the EPO's Administrative Council comes one day before its preparatory meeting for the larger council meeting next month. That meeting is expected to center – yet again – on the breakdown of relations between staff and management.
On the agenda is reform of the EPO's disciplinary and investigative rules as well as its appeal process – something that has been pushed by critics of the EPO's current president Benoit Battistelli.
The staff letter warns, however, that among the improvements proposed are changes that would continue to undermine their rights. The rules did not appear in any other international organization's rules, they warn, and would be illegal under national law.
In particular, the rules would:
- Give the controversial Investigations Unit the right to seize private property.
- Create a fast-track disciplinary procedure, overseen by the president, for instances of "professional incompetence."
- Allow management to cut a staff member's retirement pension as a disciplinary measure.
- Allow management to withhold salary if it decides a staff member has "failed to perform his assigned duties while being at work."
- Allow the president to reappoint the chair of the Appeals Committee by himself, removing the staff committee's voice.
- Allow management to impose the costs of an unsuccessful appeal onto staff.
Taken together, the measures are yet another effort by President Battistelli to undermine his staff's rights and impose unpopular reform efforts on staff by threatening them with retaliation.
The exact same process of tinkering with internal policies in order to award greater powers to the president's office has happened repeatedly at all levels of the EPO, and have led to him being dubbed "King Battistelli."
The situation has grown so dire that the staff has even taken the EPO to the European Court of Human Rights in an effort to impose some rules over their treatment (EPO management claims immunity from national laws due to its status as an international organization).
Ironically, reform to the disciplinary proceedings and appeals process has been championed by one of Battistelli's fiercest critics – Dutch secretary of state for Economic Affairs, Martijn van Dam – as an example of how concerned member states are imposing some kind of accountability on a president run amok.
"The Netherlands has been one of the most active and most critical member states in the Administrative Council when it comes to improving the social situation," van Dam told Dutch politicians earlier this month during a special session of Parliament called to discuss the situation at the EPO.
"We're actively involved in reviewing the internal staff regulations. Our ambition is to make these more transparent and to improve the legal and social position of employees, for instance by reviewing the complaint and investigation procedures. We will continue to do this and will seek support from like-minded member states ... A decision on the review of complaint and investigation procedures is planned for June."
Overall, the changes would shift responsibility from the president to the council and so, in theory, prevent him from threatening staff who resist his efforts and then controlling the process by which they are disciplined for failing to fall in line.
However, the staff committee warns that the changes as currently written will "further damage the legal framework within the EPO" and risk a "further deterioration in the already severely spoiled working atmosphere."
"We believe that the President is simply trying to shift the responsibility for these new, flawed proposals from himself to the Council," the letter warns.
For the past year, the staff and some Administrative Council members have argued for firing Battistelli, but even van Dam has given up on getting enough council members on board to get rid of the petulant Frenchman before his terms ends next year.
Meanwhile, Battistelli continues to ignore formal rebukes from his own staff and council as well as the International Labor Organization, while sitting in a controversial penthouse suite he had built for himself for an undisclosed sum at the top of the EPO's headquarters in Munich. ®