The Poles have made a dramatic last-minute intervention in the approval of controversial new EU patent laws and delayed the directive until at least next year.

After weeks of intrigue and an attempt to sneak the directive through in the last session of the Fisheries Council, Poland suddenly acted on its stated opposition to the directive as written and asked for more time to ensure that the draft rules did not allow software to be patented.

The Council of Ministers reached an outline agreement on 18 May, which was due to be formally approved at a meeting at 3pm today. However, Poland asked that the agreement not be approved.

Polish deputy minister for science and IT, Wlodzimierz Marcinski, said that his government was not withdrawing support for the May agreement, but that a number of key provisions in the draft text from May "do not favour support for small and medium-size businesses". Software should not be patentable, he stated. His government needed more time to draw up an appropriate statement on the legislation, he said.

Dutch Agriculture Minister Cees Veerman, who chaired the meeting, agreed to withdraw the May agreement. EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg, who represented the Commission at the meeting, said he regretted that the draft legislation was being withdrawn because of the importance the Commission attached to its original proposal.

If the agreement were adopted on Tuesday it would have sent to the European Parliament for its members to form their opinion on the Council agreement reached in May. Under the EU's co-decision procedure the Council and the Parliament must reach a common position on the rules. Previously, the Parliament had introduced several significant amendments to the directive in order to safeguard software in particular, but all of these amendments were then rejected and taken out again by the Council of Ministers.

EU officials said that despite the delay in formally approving the May agreement, the Parliament might be able to start work in early 2005, keeping to the timetable for a formal agreement on the overall package by the end of next year.

Since the Council reached its stance in May, several member states expressed doubts about the agreement. Hungary, Latvia and the Netherlands issued declarations expressing their concerns about the Council draft.