TCS Daily

Lisbonne, Mon Amour

By Craig Winneker - February 7, 2005 12:00 AM

It had all the makings of a high-profile corporate rollout: a slow-reveal build-up of media anticipation culminating in a curtain-raising front-page exclusive in a major broadsheet; a day-long schedule of press availabilities and PowerPoint theatrics; even a snazzy new slogan and logo. But the European Commission's semi-eagerly anticipated re-launch of the Lisbon Agenda -- which aims to make the EU's economy the world's most competitive and dynamic by 2010 -- turned out to be the political equivalent of New Coke.

"Growth and jobs" is the bold, though not-so-new, promise. The re-launch was slick and smart and showed all the signs of having been master-minded by the Commission's new public-relations czar, Margot Wallström. The press pack is soothing yellow-and-blue, and it includes lots of catchy soundbites. Its intro paragraph is a rallying cry:

"Just think what Europe could be. Think of the innate strengths of our enlarged Union. think of its untapped potential to create prosperity and offer opportunity and justice for all its citizens. Europe can be a beacon of economic, social and environmental progress to the rest of the world."

Good stuff, all packaged under the subtitle, "A new start for the Lisbon Strategy."

Interestingly, the French translation of that slogan is "Un nouvel élan pour la stratégie de Lisbonne." Élan is a fabulous word that means impetus or momentum or spring in your step and, as the historian Barbara Tuchman described in her seminal work on World War I, The Guns of August, it also describes centuries of French military strategy. Style over substance, movement over entrenchment, confidence that you will win simply because you have the momentum and the bravado. Élan is what convinced France it would defeat the Kaiser in the opening days of that horrible war, despite the overwhelming superiority of German forces and firepower.

If Barroso hasn't read Tuchman, perhaps he should. Because he and several of his fellow commissioners been showing a lot of élan lately, talking a good game about creating jobs and growth. Their report offers page after page of more promises about creating jobs and growth, and, like the original statement agreed in the Portuguese capital in March 2000, it sets admirable goals. But it also fails to provide the necessary tools for achieving those goals.

It does not provide a good answer for overcoming the overwhelming opposition of member states and, to a lesser extent, certain factions in the European Parliament and that nebulous universe known as Civil Society. It was hoped that this week's public-relations push would create enough momentum to convince skeptics and wayward member states to get with the program. Instead it seems to have emboldened the enemy. On the day after the re-launch, headlines across Europe focused not so much on Barroso's plan but on a successful French gambit to micturate upon it from a great height. Paris has vowed to vigorously oppose the Commission's draft law creating a single market for services, a Lisbon linchpin.

Other reaction to Barroso's re-launch was tiresomely predictable. "The approach put forward today is depressingly reminiscent of the Thatcher years," said the European Parliament's Green group leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. "This is a disappointing start for the new commission because it risks presenting Europe as an agent for lower social standards, worse welfare states and poorer environmental standards," glowered the European Trade Union Confederation. The head of the Parliament's Socialist faction, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, added: "Europe now needs to focus on realizing change -- and this will not be done by mimicking the American approach. This is not what millions of jobless Europeans need."

Nobody had a better reply to this kind of nonsense that former EU Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, who provided just one of the voices of sanity to be heard at the most recent TechCentral Station Hayek Series event in Brussels. "There is a curious idea that competitiveness must be at the cost of social cohesion," he said, using one of the left-wing buzzwords for why free markets must be bad. "But in fact the opposite is true. Competitiveness and social cohesion go hand-in-hand."

Former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar, another speaker at the conference, is a free-market hero who helped make his country an economic wonder by insisting on pro-growth, low-tax policies coupled with an emphasis on high-technology and the service sector. He offered an astute diagnosis of the problem with the Lisbon agenda: "There are words, words, words and no acts." But even he remains optimistic, telling the Hayek Series audience that Europe can achieve its economic goals.

Even the two socialist MEPs at the debate found it hard to disagree with the Lisbon Strategy, although Spain's Manuel Medina Ortega called it an attempt "to achieve paradise on earth" and as such, "impossible."

When prodded, however, he and British MEP Peter Skinner allowed that Europe suffers from too much innovation-stifling regulation -- for example the ban on advertising pharmaceuticals or on providing medical information directly to patients, which Skinner said he wouldn't mind seeing scrapped.

Sounding more like a Sun-Belt Republican than a Labour party rabble-rouser, Skinner had probably the best line of the whole debate when he said of the EU, "We're the world leaders in regulation. If we could sell regulation we would the richest bloc in the world."

Now there's a growth industry.


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