8th Dec 2023

Ending EU patent 'jigsaw puzzle' key to innovation, says commissioner

  • Why do the Americans steal all the best European brains? Commissoner Figel is to try to convince European geniuses to stay at home. (Photo: European Commission)

While EU countries remain mired in a decade-long disagreement over a patent system covering the entire 27-country bloc, the Americans are recruiting the Old Continent's best brains and capitalising big-time on their creativity, according to education and culture commissioner Jan Figel, who has set his mind on persuading European researchers to stay at home.

"We need to think about rewarding quality, excellence and talent in Europe, and this is partly about money, of course. But it is also about how to deal with intellectual rights and patents," the Slovak commissioner told EUobserver ahead of the 2009 official launch of the so-called European Year of Innovation and Creativity.

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Through the 2009 programme, which will include various national projects and debates in areas such as the knowledge society, sustainable development and creative arts and industries, Brussels wants to raise awareness of the importance of creativity and innovation in creating a prosperous Europe.

Economic growth, jobs and innovation also feature as the top priorities of the EU's Lisbon Agenda - agreed by EU leaders in 2000 - that aims for Europe to become the most competitive economy in the world by 2010. The US is seen as its key competitor.

"Europe needs to be more innovative and innovation-friendly, and not only speak about creativity but also nurture it, the commissioner said, painting a portrait of European research as groundbreaking and competent, but lousy in entrepreneurship and marketing.

"Some of the realities of today's world, such as the Mp3-player, the World Wide Web and the compact disc (CD) began their lives in Europe under European researchers but were completed in or for the US."

"We need to transfer knowledge into our economy."

A recent commission prediction of the likely impact of four of the biggest challenges facing Europe - globalisation, demographic change, climate change and energy supply - on EU regions shows that those locations investing in innovative sectors will be more able to deal with facing these problems.

"In times of financial crisis, creativity and innovation is the answer, not less, or more cautious, investment into research and innovation," Mr. Figel said.

EU patent jigsaw puzzle

According to the commissioner, one of the biggest obstacles to beating the Americans in the innovation race is the jigsaw puzzle of European patent laws, and the difficulty of obtaining or purchasing patent rights across the bloc. Europe lags far behind both the US and Japan in terms of patent activity due to the fact that its system is too slow and expensive, he said.

"The European Patent Office (EPO), which is in Munich, is a kind of umbrella, but the space under it is heavily fragmented. We must create a more common status for dealing with ideas ... I think we have a momentum for this now," Mr Figel said.

Since the 1970s, there have been discussions on the creation of an EU community-wide patent system, but four years ago, national capitals scrapped the deal mainly because they were unable to agree on a language regime.

Under the current system, national patents must be translated into contracting states' official languages in order to be legally valid in their territory.

Small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) – which account for 90 percent of the bloc's companies – have a hard time facing the costs of a patent application, which is on average 11 times higher than that of the US and 13 times higher that of Japan.

Brussels wants to limit the languages used in the patent application processes to English, French and German, and now expects to have an EU patent by 2012.

Knowledge is the fifth freedom

In the coming year, the education commissioner will also be promoting better recognition of acquired knowledge from one EU country to another, praising recent moves to streamline university curricula and validation of degrees across the EU and beyond.

"We call this the fifth freedom: capital, services, labour, goods - but also knowledge," said the commissioner, referring to the four freedoms within the EU's single market.

"Freedom for knowledge means conditions where knowledge is respected, recognised, valued, and promoted. Several instruments have been already adopted to achieve this, such as the Bologna process," he explained.

The Bologna Process, an intergovernmental agreement initially launched by EU member states but extending far beyond the bloc, delivers a series of changes to post-secondary education that are intended to ease mobility for both students and academics, making sure students receive recognition for studies abroad.

A recent survey by the Erasmus Student Network revealed that only 58 percent of Erasmus students (the European post-secondary student exchange programme) are receiving recognition for all the courses they take abroad.

The process has been popular amongst governments in Europe and beyond, with 46 states signing up. Australia, Israel and Thailand have even expressed interest.

"We have more Chinese students in Europe than in the US now, something that was not the case only some five to ten years ago. And many Israeli students, traditionally prone to heading to the US for higher studies, now come to Europe. This is thanks to the Bologna Process," Mr Figel said.

Students across Europe, notably in Italy and Spain, have however lately expressed their anger at the Bologna system, saying that the streamlining of education systems is being done more with employers' interests in mind, rather that that of students, and that the new ability of companies to fund certain degrees commercialises public universities.

Intercultural dialogue

Just over a year ago, the commissioner embarked on a mission to promote dialogue between different cultures both inside and beyond the European Union, under the umbrella programme "European Year for Intercultural Dialogue".

Summing up his achievements and experiences from the past year, Mr Figel said he was proud about the fact that education ministers had reached consensus that EU capitals need to include more intercultural skills and competences in their educational and training systems in order to equip pupils with that knowledge of the cultures they live with and around.

"Instead of 'multi-culti' comments - a facile description of the situation in Europe, a more intercultural approach, a more positive approach has arisen," he said.

There is still work to be done, however, he said.

"We could have engaged more people from just outside Europe in our talks, because in many cases the cultures from the near abroad are the cultures of European migration ... we did some action, but much more is needed," he concluded.

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