It could be well into next year before Europeans can agree on how to sign on the dotted line online.

European countries are running late implementing European rules giving digital signatures the same recognition in law as signatures on paper.

The 1 July deadline for EU member states to draw up legislation giving digital signatures legal status came and went. And at a meeting of the legal workgroup of EEMA – the European Forum for Electronic Business – 18 countries failed to reach agreement on the standards of equipment and services required to put digital signatures into everyday use.

Germany, which already has its own government-controlled digital contract regime, is insisting that the rest of Europe comes up to its technical standards for approving equipment. And the Germans won't compromise their requirements for stringent supervision of certification authorities (which verify the validity of a digital signature) and accreditation procedures.

The UK approach is that market forces will dictate the level of security required.

"We've learned that it's not enough to have the standards ready," said Jos Dumortier, chairman of the EEMA legal workgroup. "The approval of those standards across the member states becomes a very political process which goes very slowly."

The EEMA will next meet to try to reach agreement in November, but little is likely to be progressed until the next annual EEMA conference in Amsterdam in June 2002, said Dumortier.

Henk Tobias of Unilever said it was vital for multinationals like his to have one harmonised e-signature regime to adhere to, otherwise they would have to connect to multiple certification authorities in each country.