Yet another crack is evident in the European Union's bid to improve its competitiveness. Despite almost universal agreement that EU patent protection is vital to boost innovation, and wide recognition that it is currently deficient, there is still no improvement, and no early prospect of improvement.

Years of EU efforts in this domain have produced virtually no result. The biotechnology patents directive was adopted in 1998, but three member states have still not fully transposed it, five years after the due date, and there are repeated questions over the way that France and Germany are applying it.

And five years after the European Commission proposed a Community Patent to provide all European innovators with a cost-effective, rapid and legally-secure patent system, the proposal languishes in the Council of Ministers, amid disputes that have more to do with national pride in languages than with innovation.

As a result, EU innovators are still obliged to using the European Patent Convention, which is cumbersome, expensive, and - because it is not an EU body - is not able to deliver decision that bind EU member state courts to comply.

Even that most ebullient member of the European Commission, Irishman Charlie McCreevy, was unable to put a positive spin on the situation when he appeared before the European Parliament's Legal Affairs Committee this week.

The position is, he admitted frankly, "unfortunate". Entrenched...

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