15 October 2012
The decision to bestow the Nobel Prize on the EU was certainly unexpected. But the honour is fully deserved. The award powerfully underlines the essential message of European unity, aside from the usual stories of economic woes, bureaucracy, regulatory nitpicking and incomprehensible decision-making processes. After centuries of conflict, after two world wars and the worst forms of totalitarianism, the countries of Europe have managed, in just 60 years, to create a fundamentally new political structure based on the values of peace, democracy and human rights.
Above the mundane level, the results are impressive. Success was by no means inevitable, as the difficult relations between neighbouring countries in other parts of the world show, where the past weighs heavy on the present and the future. Reconciliation between peoples, the pooling of resources, the building of a common future and the creation of a single space whose inhabitants can move and express themselves without hindrance – these are tasks requiring courage and perseverance. The peoples and the decision-makers of Europe deserve all credit for their commitment to this joint effort, knowing that it was the only route to a lasting peace.
A key element in this success is the ability of the system to combine both levels, the regional and the national. The deep-rooted traditions and cultures of Europe are too varied to see “Europeans” as a single, homogeneous population. Nevertheless, the EU has certainly helped to create an awareness of Europe as an entity whose citizens have common interests that outweigh their differences and who are prepared to work together for shared goals. The search for workable compromises, as a step at least in the right direction, has often led to lengthy discussions, but this is the only way forward when 27, and soon 28 member states are gathered at the negotiating table to harmonise their policies or laws.
The patent system took a very early lead in the gradual process of European rapprochement. When the Paris Convention was negotiated and signed at the end of the 19th century, it established the principle of priority, which in a sense abolished national frontiers, by giving precedence to a non-native right holder over a national of a country taking into account a previous right born abroad. At the political level, in this troubled period of European history, ideas of this kind were less current.
The success story of the EPO also rests on a two-tier approach, doing at the regional, European level the things that are done more efficiently there than at the national level, and vice versa, to the benefit of both sides. While it is not legally an institution of the European Union, the EPO is proud to be a participant in anticipating the building of Europe, through the field of patents.
The EPO and the EU have a great deal in common, and the expected decisions concerning the unitary patent and the Unified Patent Court will soon link our two organisations more closely.
In the words of Jean Monnet, the architect of the new Europe, “Nothing is possible without men [and, I must add, women]; nothing is lasting without institutions.” The Nobel Committee has recognised the truth of this. For that, our thanks are due to its members.