TCS Daily

Reform Revolution

By Craig Winneker - September 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This marks the first of a series of "Letters from Brussels" by TCS Europe Editor Craig Winneker.

BRUSSELS -- If the European Union could choose a snappy Latin motto, it might be something like, "In Inertia Securitas". Even before its Byzantine legislative process has been negotiated (the EU's "How a Bill Becomes Law" flow chart makes Hillary Clinton's health care plan look as simple as Schoolhouse Rock) there are endless hurdles to overcome. "Social partners" must be consulted, impacts must be assessed, and, in what may be the toughest obstacle of all, member states must be convinced to get with the program. It's a heck of lot easier to just do nothing.

So it's no surprise that ambitious policy initiatives don't so much come and go here in Brussels; instead, they stay around, unsullied by anything approaching forward motion, for years -- even decades, as in the case of attempts to pass legislation making corporate takeovers easier.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. And there have been encouraging signs that the incoming European Commission will devote itself more to actively seeking change. Those signs, however, are now being met with the inevitable backlash from Members of the European Parliament, who vote soon on the 25 new Commissioners. Starting this week, the nominees have been parading before Parliamentary committees and facing questions about their backgrounds and their policy intentions. They are having to reassure that despite all the talk of dramatic change, inertia will rule the day.

The first of the hearings was on Monday, and featured Vladimir Spidla, the Czech commissioner-designate. The former prime minister was made to grovel and eventually promise not to be too bold with his important (and ambitiously named) brief: employment, social affairs and equal opportunities. Yes, he said he hoped that European countries would reform their labor markets and allow free movement of workers from new EU countries. But he also tossed this biscuit to the slavering MEP hounds: "I would insist on a social impact assessment on every policy that is formulated in the same way that we have environmental impacts." They didn't seem satisfied.

And Spidla was only the first of 25 commissioner-designates to appear. Later in the week there would be Neelie Kroes, who faced what promised to be some of the toughest questioning of any of the commissioners. Why? Because of her background in...the private sector. Cue the evil-sounding violins. Kroes has already answered conflict-of-interest concerns by severing herself from various corporate boards, but she is unlikely to be able to shake the perception that she will support Big Corporations at the expense of the European way of life. Adding to her "can't win" scenario is the fact that she will take office just in time to reap what her predecessor, Mario Monti, has sown in terms of bad competition policy.

But you've got to hand it to Commission President-designate José Barroso: his team is staying on message. Slovak nominee Jan Figel, who will take over the culture and education portfolio, focused on the need to implement the EU's Lisbon strategy of spurring economic growth. He echoed Spidla's call for labor reform. "Mobility must be greatly improved, both between geographical regions and sectors of activity, in order to create a dynamic European labor market," he said.

He was met with the usual skepticism from MEPs -- and not just from defenders of the Eurosclerotic social model. Even free-marketeers are dubious of the Lisbon agenda's overall goals. Basically you can divide European politicians into two groups when it comes to how they view the Lisbon process: those who don't believe it will happen and those who don't want it to.

Reform is a four-letter word in Europe. Ask Gerhard Schröder how well he likes to utter it. Ask any of the nominated commissioners how well their discussion of it is being received.

But fear not. There are some small flickers of hope that the EU can be a force for free-market progress and for the promotion of liberty over regulation, grassroots enterprise over industrial policy, daring ideas over stolid central planning. This month TechCentralStation hopes to fan some of those flickers into flames. We're launching an essay contest, with a first prize of €2,500, for the best commentary by a European on how to reform health care on the continent.

Currently Europe is a patchwork of health care plans -- some that sort of work and some that are disastrously wrong-headed. But we know there are good ideas out there for how to improve the care Europeans get, and we want to give them a public airing. Click here for details on how to enter, and get writing. Help Europe overcome the inertia.


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