TCS Daily

Express Lane to Lisbon?

By Craig Winneker - May 23, 2003 12:00 AM

I recently experienced my first indication that Europe's so-called Lisbon Process may be working, and several days later I'm still in a state of euphoric disbelief.

Lisbon is not just the capital of Portugal, it is also the effort launched by EU leaders meeting there in 2000 to create within a decade - take a deep breath here - "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion."

If this goal strikes you as an oxymoron along the lines of "jumbo shrimp" or "corporate social responsibility," you see the problem the EU has faced in making progress toward it. Three years after the Lisbon summit very little has been done to promote economic growth in Europe by reforming employment policy, freeing up energy markets, cutting taxes, fostering entrepreneurship, etc. The result: slow or nonexistent growth and rising unemployment.

But not long after the first blossoms of spring come signs there may be progress.

My own epiphany came in, of all places, a supermarket in Brussels. What was so incredible? The fact that the store was even open. It was a bank holiday - May 1, Europe's Labor Day - and just about everything in town except for bars and flower shops was shut tight.

Actually, it's not unusual that a shop would be closed in Belgium, a country famous for being a sort of retail no man's land. Even if a working person can get to a store during its very limited opening hours, he or she typically finds poor selection, high prices and surly service. The expression of welcome from most merchants here is a glance that says not "Hello, may I help you?" but "Why have you come into my shop?"

What's worse, it is against the law for most stores to reduce prices except during two annual nationally mandated sale periods. Only fools and hapless expatriates seem to want to shop during the remaining 45 or so weeks of the year.

However, this particular supermarket was doing a brisk business. Belgian consumers, it seems, actually do want to buy things, even on a bank holiday. They seemed thrilled and even a bit puzzled to have been given the chance.

Still dazed myself, I went back to the store on a Sunday evening. Some friends were showing up unexpectedly for dinner and I needed a few more steaks. Normally, I would have been out of luck. No butcher would be open and certainly no chain grocery stores. My only hope would have been to buy a frozen pizza from a mom-and-pop shop. But once again, I was overjoyed to find the supermarket open and well stocked.

Since this was the only such store open for what must have been several kilometers, the checkout lines stretched all the way to the back wall. Again Belgians proved that, given the chance, they will consume.

The store employees on both of these occasions appeared to be young, and some were clearly immigrants. They did not seem in the least bit oppressed.

There is a persistent mindset here that competitiveness and growth may mean jobs, but not the kind of jobs that fit the Lisbon vision of a cushiony and protective "social fabric." At a recent TCS-Europe conference in Brussels, an audience member illustrated this perfectly when he challenged the EU's Single Market commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, by claiming that if Europe were to emulate the United States' pro-growth policies its only new jobs would be for "hamburger flippers."

That he was wrong was beside the point. And, as Bolkestein rightly retorted, even if this were true it would not be such a bad thing. After all, the Dutch commissioner pointed out with a sly grin, his own two sons had both worked at McDonald's and not suffered any long-term career damage. The only reply from the questioner was along the lines of: "Yes, but they went on to better things." Touché.

Workers from Poland and Slovakia and other eastern European countries, who will soon join the EU workforce in large numbers, may not be as choosy as their French or Belgian counterparts when it comes to finding a job. To them flipping hamburgers - or even working a supermarket checkout lane on a bank holiday - may seem like a stepping stone to something else.

Or maybe just a job. It doesn't really matter. In either case, Europe's leaders need to find ways to make it easier for employers to let them work. These jobs may not necessarily be knowledge-based, but they are certainly dynamic and competitive, and they are essential to creating sustainable economic growth and, yes, even social cohesion. They are also essential to creating more and "better" jobs.

And if all of this means I've got more flexibility to shop, I'm willing to hold up my end of the deal by opening my wallet.

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