The European Patent Office has formally advertised for a new president, marking a cut-off date for its controversial president Benoit Battistelli.
The news comes as bittersweet relief to staff at the EPO, who have gone on strike twice in the past week over the latest set of reform efforts pushed by Battistelli and approved by the EPO's broader administrative council at a meeting late last month.
It is likely the last set of changes that the controversial Frenchman will be able to get through before his departure on June 30, 2018.
But staff are still reeling from the changes to EPO service regulations that will, among other things:
- Create a fast-track disciplinary procedure, overseen by the president, for instances of "professional incompetence."
- Allow management to withhold salary if it decides a staff member has "failed to perform his assigned duties while being at work."
- Put the cost of an unsuccessful appeal onto staff.
Those changes follow a years-long campaign of intimidation and disciplinary actions against any staff who opposed Battistelli's reform efforts. The actions have been repeatedly ruled illegal under the national laws of the countries in which the staff reside, but the EPO claims immunity since it is an international organization (the EPO staff union has gone to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that case).
The EPO's flawed appeals process has also been struck down repeatedly by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Regardless, the EPO's Administrative Council approved the measures unanimously, with 34 country representatives voting yes and four abstaining.
The Admin Council did, however, stop short of approving Battistelli's other raft of proposed reforms, which would have seen a radical restructure of the EPO but whose benefits beyond saving money and giving the president yet more power were unclear.
Perhaps more significantly, the Administrative Council named its new chairman after its current chair, Jesper Kongstad, unexpectedly resigned from his position of chairman of the Danish patent office.
Kongstad was widely credited with supporting and protecting Battistelli at the council, repeatedly blocking efforts to have him kicked out of the job early. In his place, from October, will be German Christoph Ernst, who has been a critic of several of Battistelli's more controversial reforms.
The selection of Ernst has been widely seen as a public rebuke of Battistelli for his crusade against anyone opposing his plans – a situation that has led to a complete breakdown in communication between staff and management.
At its recent meeting in Munich, the Administrative Council was asked by the EPO staff union to launch an independent investigation into the circumstances behind the recent suicide of an examiner: the sixth such death in just five years. They declined to do so.
The selection criteria put forward for the new president are also seen as a sideswipe at Battistelli. Of the four listed for the position, two are:
- Thorough knowledge and proven practical application of modern management methods, including an outstanding ability to establish and foster social dialogue.
- A genuine aptitude for communication, negotiating skills and the ability to make their opinions count.
Battistelli famously storms out of meetings if he doesn't like what he hears.
However, while Battistelli's ability to enact any new changes is almost certainly over, the reforms he has managed to pass still give him significant power to change how the EPO functions – and to get rid of anyone who opposes him.
Although those reforms started out as an attempt to modernize the EPO – particularly in the face of broader global competition from Asia and North America – in the end they became vindictive and focused on forcing through what Battistelli and his management team decided was the best course of action for the EPO – without the benefit of feedback from the rest of the organization.
Although Battistelli was the driving force behind the changes, Kongstad and the country representatives who formally approved his plans while turning a blind eye to widespread abuses within the EPO also carry the blame for the damage they have caused.
Whether the EPO will eventually emerge sharper and leaner – as Battistelli supporters clearly believe it will – or will continue to suffer from this damaging period in which a singular vision was pursued without consideration for others' views – only time will tell.
But for EPO staff at least, the end is now in sight. ®