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New Patent System Shows Multispeed Europe

November 29, 2010

While the EU is currently in the news for its bailout of Ireland (the details were finalized yesterday), the EU appears to be pushing ahead with new policies that could further integrate Europe and make it easier for businesses to operate in the EU.  Today it was announced that a group of EU countries are moving close to creating a common patent system.  The idea is to have a patent that is issued by one office, the European Patent Office (EPO), which would then be universally recognized across the EU.  The result would be that the cost of registering a patent would dramatically fall from more than €14,000 to about €680.

This move is important in its own right as a way to help small businesses promote new ideas, but it is also important because it will be only the second time that “Enhanced co-operation” will be used to pass a measure through the EU.   Enhanced co-operation was enacted in the Lisbon Treaty, and it allows member states to pass legislation that is being blocked by a small minority.  For the process to work, nine or more countries must agree to the measure and then other states are allowed to join later.  In the case of a common patent, Spain and Italy have been opposed to the idea since patents would be registered in the three EU working languages (English, French, and German), and these two countries would like to see Italian and Spanish added.

As a result, EU integration can now occur through a “multispeed Europe” or a la carte, meaning that while the EU was designed to create uniformed regulations across the region, now it is more likely that on many relatively minor issues, a patchwork of measures may be introduced.  For instance, the UK is famous for its ability to stay out of the Schengen or Euro Zones, yet it is one of the driving forces behind the common patent.  Thus, Enhanced cooperation may be a good tool at resolving small disputes when many states what to move ahead with integration on one topic, yet a few states are opposed.  However, European leaders will have to be careful not to over use this mechanism, as it may dilute the core mission of the EU, which is to remove barriers to the free movement of goods, services, people, and capital across Europe.

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