Judging from your interest in developing a spirit of entrepreneurship among young people, do you think the Lisbon Agenda is in line with these ambitions? Isn't Europe lagging behind the US in terms of mobilising its young people to make society work more successfully?
I don't want to rush to judgement. The Lisbon agenda is a prise de conscience in Europe in that it is lagging behind in many respects when it comes to global competition. Even the terminology "a knowledge based society" indicates that we need to know more, we need to innovate more, we need to invent more. What does education mean? It doesn't only mean people who are here, it means people with a good background in social sciences, economics and also in engineering. It also refers to people who are in schools.
I wouldn't make a judgement and say Europe is flawed in all respects. What I think is more complicated in Europe is that the Union is such a diverse organisation and sometimes it looks as if policymaking could be impossible. But one also has to acknowledge that there is tremendous variety of performance between member countries.
For example, the Scandinavian countries are performing exceptionally well, and they have very successful companies such as Nokia, which has re-engineered itself in the space of two decades and has become a leader in its sector. So I agree, when it comes to universities and centres of excellence, we are lagging behind. The very fact that we are setting up an institute of technology, like the one that was just announced for Budapest, indicates that recent acknowledgment that we are lagging behind and don't have the vitality.
Do you feel frustrated that as an MEP you don't have the legislative power to initiate European legislation on these matters?
This assessment is questionable. The European Parliament can put a lot of pressure, the national parliaments can put a lot of pressure. I think the policymaking process should be in broader terms. We can all be made accountable to a state of affairs, it's not only the Commission, it's not only the Council. And the Council itself is not unaccountable. Those who sit in the Council, the ministers, are accountable to their national parliaments, and the parliaments are accountable to their citizens.
But more can be done?
Even if you are at the very forefront, more can always be done. I think that the ballgame has acquired new dimensions. In the EU we have said that more needs to be done about climate change, and the Union has tried to take a lead in this regard. But we see how difficult it is. How to cope with rising food prices, the energy crisis? Therefore the Lisbon Agenda gets a new significance. If you innovate, if you have the productivity gains, then you can cope with the challenges. Frankly, it's easy to make such a statement, but in practice it is very hard.
Do you think the Small Business Act is helping push forward the Lisbon Agenda?
Yes. We have many examples of small companies in the US. I remember (British economist) Schumacher with his famous book 'Small is beautiful'. Big companies which started small have succeeded. Take Bill Gates, he started small. Small companies can make a difference in addition to providing jobs.
Small companies are also linked with the quality of education, and they can be more forthcoming in terms of the needs of the entrepreneurial spirit. They are very innovative. Big companies can be very bureaucratic. Unfortunately the financial crisis and the tightening of the credit market do not see this. Banks prefer the big names.
Young people also seem to prefer the big names. Don’t you think young people would prefer to start their careers in a big company rather than try their luck in a small company?
It depends on the field. If you are an accountant, there is not much you can do in that field, so you would go and work for KPMG or PwC. But if one is a software engineer, you would prefer to get funding to set up a business with some friends. So it really depends on the field. A young lawyer also has a hard time setting up his own business, as he would rather work in a big house.
Would you say that in Eastern Europe, because of the historic legacy, the entrepreneurial spirit is not as present as it is in the West?
No, I don't buy that at all. I think it is totally wrong. People were entrepreneurial even before the fall of communism. People tried to make ends meet, so there were lots of entrepreneurial activities. There was moral and immoral entrepreneurship. You cannot be a good manager unless you understand the balance sheet of a company, or what a cash flow means. If you don't speak a common language with the members of your board, forget about it.
It has taken some time for people in Central and Eastern Europe to grow up in this regard. Some countries had an advantage, like Poland and Hungary, where people came in from the diaspora. Hungary had a goulash communism before 1989, so some people already knew what a market economy was.
But nowadays it is hard to make such a claim. I'm not saying we can find replicas of a Bill Gates in Central and Eastern Europe. But after two decades we can come up with a list of accomplished business people. People who are not involved in shady deals and who run well-functioning companies who produce something for their national budget and who compete on European markets.