EPO: Abuse of power


“At the European Patent Office (EPO), an abuse of power takes its form under a French boss who sows the seeds of anti-union culture”


The European Patent Office (EPO), the only continental body chaired by France, is in turmoil. Its president, Benoît Battistelli, propelled in 2010 by Nicolas Sarkozy, is accused of autocratic drift, trade union discrimination and denying the slightest judicial hindrance to his imperium. A case of employer abuse that will be examined Wednesday by the board of directors of the EPO, whose headquarters are in Munich, but which also has a branch in The Hague. At the risk of further diminishing the French presence in international institutions.

What is reproached to Battistelli’s management? Notably, at least three employee suicides occurred during his term of office, including one in his workplace. “Each case is a tragedy, nobody understood the reason for the gesture”, tempers Battistelli, whom Libération met last month in Paris. It’s an understatement to say that the in-house unions don’t have the same vision of things: “They only see incompetent and incapable people, but you can’t be right all the time against everyone. France’s reputation in international bodies is at stake,” assures a French trade unionist who is a member of SUEPO (Staff Union of the European Patent Office).

Bringing the unions into line

The EPO employs 6,700 international staff in a highly competitive global patent market. Inventors (or purported inventors) can apply to any national, European or Asian office for patents. “There is competition, the difference in costs between the different offices is considerable,” says Battistelli. At the EPO, we have to work more and better. I was elected on this programme.” A liberal to the devil, although a civil servant by profession, he seems to be especially keen to bring the unions into line.

The SUEPO won 70% of the votes in the staff elections. Battistelli has abolished its union office, banned it from using the internal mail system, and initiated disciplinary proceedings against seven of its officials. It then attempted to build a home-grown union with a 1% ceiling in elections. “I have long been a supporter of trade union dialogue,” Battistelli defends. Among other initiatives: subjecting the right to strike to an internal referendum led by him, with identification of the voters. Weary, in spite of this close monitoring, 90% of the employees (out of 55% of voters) voted last April for a final strike.

Faced with a boss, to which court should we turn? The SUEPO appealed to the Court of Appeal in The Hague which, in February 2015, asked the EPO to “give free access and no longer block emails from suepo.org”, considering that the protection of trade union rights would be “manifestly deficient”. A crime of lese-majesty, says Battistelli, hiding behind the judicial immunity of his international body. For very good reasons, he says: “The principle of immunity is not to protect situational privileges, but to guard against national interference”. The SUEPO immediately translated: “Black hole of internal, trade union and judicial democracy.” The boss of the EPO does not deny it, attacking in return “serial litigants”, in his eyes “inadmissible”, before dwelling on his own employer’s rights: “There is no class action in social matters”… EPO is facing an abuse of power under the form of its boss who sows anti-trade union culture;

Bike sabotage

Until now, France has been supporting this French president of a continental body. Last April, Emmanuel Macron received Benoît Battistelli at Bercy. “For all that is adaptation and modernisation of the EPO, you have my support,” the former would have said according to the latter. And for the rest? Not a single demonstration by EPO employees, in Munich or The Hague, without a stop in front of the French consulate… “Bercy is trying to understand its psychopathology”, a French trade unionist tries to reassure himself. “France must take its responsibilities,” warns William Bourdon, SUEPO‘s lawyer. It is unfortunate and perilous that a European institution, which is supposed to be exemplary, should do so little under its presidency”.

On Wednesday, the EPO will reconsider its resolution of last March at a previous Administrative Council meeting, expressing its “deep concern about social unrest within the Office” and noting that “internal sanctions and disciplinary procedures are widely questioned in public opinion”. It may be necessary to move from words to deeds. Its president, who was reappointed last year for a three-year term, says he is the victim of a “press campaign” and will defend his record fiercely. His latest initiative: a press release denouncing the sabotage of his bicycle in the EPO car park, severed brake cables, “deliberate act of vandalism of the President’s personal property”. He has since hired six bodyguards.

Article “EPO abuse of power” from Libération.

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