Friday, January 28, 2005

It's Like Lisbon...or Something

This is from today’s Wall Street Journal Europe, but it loses something without the Beavis and Butthead illustration they used in the paper. They also teased it on the front page with a small graphic of B&B and the headline “Lisbon, um, stinks”. They won’t print the word “sucks”, apparently. Anyway, I can retire now.

January 28, 2005




BRUSSELS -- You've got to admire the moxie, the determination, the utter indefatigability of the European Union when it comes to the economic stimulus strategy it calls the Lisbon Agenda. Like an emergency-room doctor pounding on a code-blue patient's chest, screaming, "Breathe, dammit, breathe!" EU leaders endlessly try to resuscitate what has long been diagnosed as a hopeless case.

Even the words agreed upon at the Lisbon summit in 2000 (which explains the otherwise inexplicable name) have become a joke: That by 2010 Europe will transform itself into "the world's most competitive and most dynamic knowledge-based economy, capable of sustainable economic growth accompanied by a quantitative and qualitative improvement in employment and greater social cohesion."

Not exactly "It's the economy, stupid."

Nevertheless, every six months or so, the EU coughs up another new initiative aimed at restoring life to the strategy -- while reassuring doubters that sweeping economic reform will not come at the cost of Europe's supposedly cherished social values.

Initiatives and publications abound. Remember the Sapir Report? Chances are you do not. Issued in 2003 by a group of so-called "wise men" -- one of whom apparently was named Sapir -- it excoriated EU governments for failing to meet their Lisbon targets. "Growth must become Europe's No. 1 economic priority," it pleaded. No one -- least of all the politicians to whom it was addressed -- listened. Last year brought the Kok Report, which may have attracted a little attention if only for its Beavis and Butthead-inspired title. It said basically the same thing.

Sapir, Kok, Lisbon. Bureaucrats in Brussels actually expect this mnemonic nonsense to motivate people. Instead, to insiders, the term Lisbon Agenda has come to mean something that cannot be achieved; to the average European, it means nothing. (Lisbon, by the way, is a beautiful and vibrant city. It does not deserve to become a synonym for failure.)

At a recent EU summit, European Parliament President Josep Borrell showed a surprising grasp of reality when he suggested a name-change might be in order. "The first thing which we need to do with regard to the Lisbon Strategy is to stop calling it that," Mr. Borrell told EU leaders last November. "Nobody knows what we are talking about."

Unfortunately, his suggested replacement doesn't exactly fit on a T-shirt, either: the "strategy for competitiveness, social cohesion and the environment."

With the 10-year clock ticking, frustrated and desperate to salvage their economic agenda, and unmoved by Mr. Borrell's brainstorm, EU leaders tried another approach. Late last year, they appointed a commission president who is actually from Lisbon. José Manuel Barroso talks a good game about making economic growth the No. 1 priority of his five-year mandate. But no matter how hard he tries -- or how many reports he produces -- he will still have to get past member-state governments reluctant to act.

He is undaunted. Next week the European Commission will unveil yet another effort. Yes, five years into the 10-year plan, Lisbon is getting a "relaunch." Like a desperate restaurateur hoping a new menu concept will bring in customers, the EU is repackaging the same old ingredients, and continuing to serve up the same promises it will ultimately fail to keep.

Conveniently dropping the talk of overtaking the U.S. as the world's economic leader in 10 years, the relaunch focuses on 10 points. Exactly, it's a 10-point plan for growth, aimed at creating "more and better jobs in an innovative and attractive Europe." These include "attracting more people in employment," "more and better research and development," "promoting innovation and sustainability," "completing the internal market," "creating the conditions for a strong European industrial base," etc.

Do we detect a pulse in the patient? It's very faint. So get ready. The commission is grabbing its defibrillator paddles for one more try. Clear!

Mr. Winneker is editor of TechCentralStation Europe.

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