EU seeks ‘new narrative’ for growth and jobs strategy

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The Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs, the European Commission’s flagship policy agenda for the past five years, has a “branding problem” and needs to be revisited, according to a top EU official. Sweden, which opens the strategy’s review process this autumn, will kick off the search for a “new narrative” to make the agenda more relevant to citizens, the official told EURACTIV in an interview.

Gerad De Graaf, a head of unit in charge of the Lisbon Strategy at the Commission, said the EU needs to speed up implementation of its economic reform agenda, but suggested that no radical changes in substance are to be expected when the strategy comes up for revision later this year.

“The fundamental problem is one of pace. Therefore, anything we will consider and propose in terms of modification to the strategy after 2010 has to answer [this] question,” he told EURACTIV.

“In terms of policies, we want more innovation, for example, and we want to make good progress on labour markets, but if we do this and fail to make good progress on the business environment […], we’re not going to be successful. We need progress on all these fronts.”

The strategy has come under fire in recent years, with critics saying it has failed to reach its goal of turning the EU into “the most competitive economy in the world by 2010”.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country takes over the rotating EU presidency on 1 July, recently pointed to the strategy’s “failure”, saying “a review and new start to EU’s Lisbon Strategy is necessary” (EURACTIV 03/06/09).

Lisbon Agenda: The EU’s ‘best kept secret’?

The strategy, launched in the Portuguese capital in 2000, expires in 2010 and is coming up for revision later this year. A broad public consultation will be launched in the autumn over the Internet, with an overall agreement on the revised agenda expected at a European summit under the Spanish Presidency in March next year (EURACTIV 19/05/09).

But De Graaf admitted that little could be achieved without stronger commitment from member states to engage with civil society at national level. 

“The starting position is political will,” De Graaf says. “If a member state wants to involve its stakeholder, then [the Internet] and other instruments are very useful. But if member states regard the Lisbon Strategy as the best-kept secret, and are not trying to interest the parliament in the debate on the Lisbon Strategy, then obviously [Internet consultations] cannot compensate for that.”

And he says the Commission will keep an open mind as to the responses it gets. “We are not going into a consultation to get just validation of our views. Obviously, the president has views, we have views. It is very important that we strengthen our assets.”

Branding problem: Finding ‘a new narrative’

De Graaf admits that public perception and communications have probably been the strategy’s weakest point. “From a problem analysis point of view, it is fair to say that we have a branding problem. If we were a private company, we would call in a marketing company, and say, ‘How can we re-brand this product?'”

The official says the Commission is convinced that the strategy itself “is a good product,” but he admits to confusion over its name and visibility as well as negative perceptions of its achievements, especially at national level.

“Too many people still associate the Lisbon Strategy with 2000 – ‘the most competitive economy in the world’ – too many people have already concluded that the Lisbon Strategy is a failure, and thus does not warrant any more attention. And then there is a very large group of people who are frankly not tuned into this debate at all.”

But he says there is scope for giving a renewed sense of direction to the strategy. “There is clearly an issue here. Are we going to have a ‘Lisbon Strategy B’ after 2010? Or is this an opportunity to really come up with something new? I think in any event, independent of the name, which is an issue that will obviously need to be thought about, the new narrative is important.”

“From that perspective of a new narrative, where does Europe want to be in 2015? What kind of Europe will we have after the crisis? What is the exit strategy? When we come out at the end of that tunnel, where will we find ourselves? That will need to be taken very much into account in the next narrative.”

A greener and smarter economy

According to De Graaf, there are already elements of this new narrative that are known, such as the need for “a greener economy” or the need for investment in “a smarter economy” based on education, knowledge and innovation.

“The sustainable and the smart is something people now agree on. Whereas previously there was this whole debate – is it competitiveness first? This discussion has disappeared in a way. The ideological discussion is much less important than it was before, which I regard as progress.”

“There needs to be a discussion about the direction. But it is not so much about the ‘what’, but about the ‘how’: it is about implementation. The problem in Europe is not that we do not know where we need to go, but it is that we don’t always manage to implement the measures that will get us there.”

Making innovation policy ‘more operational’

According to De Graaf, the same goes for the EU’s innovation policy: the issue is not so much about the objectives but about implementation, he says.

“Everybody agrees that there should be more innovation. I have never met anybody in my life who says that ‘I am against innovation’. Is anybody against panda bears? Or against Santa Claus?”

“I think what we need to do with innovation is make it more operational. Innovation is a relatively fuzzy concept, but we need to translate it into policy terms, into something that is concrete”.

According to De Graaf, this means taking decisions at operational level. “If you want to keep it a political strategy, and not just a bureaucratic strategy, then it must be concrete. It needs to be translated into operational decisions that the spring Council, and the ministers, can take.”

“Innovation means changes to the intellectual property rights regime. If we want to have more innovation, do we agree on that? It means faster standardisation, more inter-operable standardisation. Do we agree on that? So those are the issues that we really need to highlight.”

Education to compete on a global scale

Similarly, education will remain a top priority in the renewed strategy. “In globalisation, it is the people who have a good education that will be successful,” De Graaf says. “If we are going to compete successfully with the rest of the world, it is because of our brains, because of the skill levels of our people.”

And with soaring unemployment due to the recession, education is certainly not going to die away as a top policy priority for EU governments. “The early school leavers are the ones who will be most vulnerable,” says De Graaf. “You see it now with the recession strikes. They are the people who tend to be shaken out of the system first.”

“Again, there will be lots of discussion and consultation, but I would be surprised if education was not given a very central place in the strategy after 2010.”

‘Synergies’ with Stability and Growth Pact

In terms of substance, the revised agenda is therefore unlikely to differ fundamentally from the previous one, with competitiveness, research, innovation and the environment as its main pillars. 

But as EU member states battle their worst economic recession since the Second World War, De Graaf said the strategy could receive renewed political momentum.

“We need to move away from this idea that we can afford to postpone reforms until after the crisis,” the official says. “These reforms have to be taken now, but we have to accept that it may take a bit longer before we see the results.”

“It is probably not going to help an awful lot in the short-term, but our strong message to member states is to keep up R&D spending, if possible even increase it, because this will help us in the medium to long term.”

According to the EU official, it will not be too long anyway before member states run out of fiscal steam to support their economies. “Therefore the only way forward is structural reform. I think those two elements will certainly be beneficial to the strategy after 2010.”

He does not rule out further adjustments to the Stability and Growth Pact, which currently limits budget deficits in order to “produce synergies” with the Lisbon Strategy.

“When you look at the next couple of years, you will see that you need to start the process of fiscal consolidation to reverse the fiscal stimulus. This will of course have an impact on the Lisbon Strategy. Particularly issues that require public expenditure will be faced with budgetary constraints. So we need to take that into account.”

“What we will need to consider in the next phase is the link between the Stability and Growth Pact and the Lisbon Strategy […] The two strategies need to be mutually supporting.”

Overcoming the ‘conflict-of-competence’ problem

De Graaf was also quick to dismiss what has been regarded as one of the enduring problems with the Lisbon Agenda: that the EU has no mandate to act on issues which essentially lay within the competence of its member states.

“The Lisbon Strategy has in a way overcome this problem of whether we have competence or not,” the official says. “We have no competence to tell the member states that they should put in place mechanisms that would enable start-ups to start within a week. We have no competence. But we managed to achieve that.”

“The heads of state and government thought it was a bloody good idea. They agreed to it. We then had monitoring in place. We used the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) to exchange some good practices. Member states like Portugal, where citizens could open a company within an hour, could tell other member states where it took forty days how they could shorten that delay, and it worked.”

“In terms of education, we are not going to make a proposal for a directive on education. But that is not to say that we cannot agree on a number of sound proposals at EU level. Sound ideas that member states, and heads of state and government, agree to implement in their own member states, and with the Commission monitoring to make sure that it does happen.”

To read the interview in full, please click here.

Background

In 2000, the EU launched its ambitious 'Lisbon Strategy' to become "the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010" (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

After five years of limited results, EU leaders re-launched the strategy in March 2005, placing greater emphasis on growth and jobs and transferring more ownership to member states via national action plans. 

In response to public concern about climate change, ageing populations and social exclusion, EU heads of state and government agreed to shift the Lisbon Agenda away from the purely "growth and jobs" focus of the past three years, putting the environment and citizens in the foreground instead (EURACTIV 18/03/08).

Given the current economic turmoil, the pendulum has seemingly swung back again, making job creation and increasing competitiveness the bloc's key priorities.

Timeline

  • Early autumn 2009: Commission to launch a wide Internet-based consultation of European and national stakeholders on the post-2010 Lisbon Strategy (based on an issue paper).
  • Late 2009/early 2010: New Commission to present its formal proposals for Lisbon post-2010.
  • March 2010: EU summit to adopt main policy orientations.
  • March 2010 / June 2010: EU summit to provide more detailed decisions, including integrated guidelines, country-specific recommendations, a new type of Community Lisbon Programme and more developed proposals in specific policy areas (such as the EU's innovation strategy). 

Fondation EURACTIV recently held a workshop on the priorities for the Lisbon Strategy post-2010 (
see programme here 
). As the new Commission and Parliament settle in, EURACTIV will continue to cover the review of the Lisbon Agenda in its 
EU Priorities section
 and during 'special week' coverage of the Swedish and Spanish EU Presidencies (
see programme here
).

Further Reading

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