In March 2000 in Lisbon, EU Heads of State and Government agreed to make the EU the most innovative knowledge-based society by 2010. Since then the European Council has not only been holding meetings to conclude an EU Presidency but also meetings halfway through a Presidency. Prepared by the work of the Competitiveness Councils, the Spring Summits specifically focus on evaluating the progress of the EU towards the achievement of the Lisbon goals.
The main issues relating to the achievenment of the Lisbon goals by 2010 are:
- the necessary investment in R&D - ie three per cent of GDP;
- reduction of red tape to promote entrepreneurship;
- achieving an employment rate of 70 per cent (60 per cent for women).
Heads of state and government from the EU 25 started the Spring European Council by examining counterterrorism measures in the wake of the Madrid train bombings. They adopted a beefed-up EU action plan on terrorism (see ).
At their meeting in Brussels on 25-26 March, EU leaders adopted conclusions on strategies to meet the Lisbon targets. "The European Council reaffirms that the process and goals remain valid. However, the pace of reform needs to be significantly stepped up," reads the paper. Moreover, governments pledge to "demonstrate the political will to make this happen".
Although in the run-up to the Summit, Germany, France and the UK had pushed for the creation of a 'Super Commissioner' for Competitiveness, the final conclusions only make a vague reference to supporting a 'competitiveness agenda' in the next Commission.
The only concrete initiative was to appoint the former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok. He will head an independent expert group reviewing the first five years of the Lisbon strategy.
In preparation for the Spring Summit, the Commission had on 21 January 2004 presented its annual Spring Report, assessing the progress made towards the Lisbon goals. The Spring Report was accompanied by the Implementation Report of the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines 2003-2005, the Joint Employment Report (assessing implementation of the Employment Guidelines), and the Implementation Report on the Internal Market Strategy. The reports painted a dire picture of the state of the EU's competitiveness.
While some progress has been made on job creation (6 million new jobs since 1999) and liberalisation of the telecommunications and energy sectors, the EU is still far from reaching its targets. The main areas of concern for the Commission concern employment and productivity, and the lack of transposition of internal market directives relating to the Lisbon strategy area: more than 40 per cent of legislation still needs to be implemented. Moreover, the budgetary situation of some Member States such as France and Germany is a cause for major concern.
The Commission urged governments to give the Lisbon strategy fresh impetus at this year's Spring Summit. In particular, it outlined three priority areas:
Investment in networks and knowledge: Through the 'European Growth Initiative', Member States have approved a list of priority projects which must now be started. Moreover, the Commission called for a stronger commitment to reaching the objective of increasing research investment to three per cent of GDP by 2010.
Strengthening competitiveness in industry and services: This refered to the need to step up efforts in the areas of industrial policy, the services market and environmental technologies.
Increasing labour market participation of older people: Active ageing should be promoted by encouraging older workers to work for longer. At the same time, national health care systems should be modernised to make them more efficient and economically viable.
Industry federations such as UNICE, EuroCommerce, UEAPME and EUROCHAMBERS maintain that the EU's failure to make progress towards the Lisbon goals is mainly due to insufficient economic reform in Member States. In particular, industry believes that excessive costs and regulation are the factors that stand in the way of making Europe the most competitive economy in the world. They have therefore called for:
- better regulation with compulsory business assessment for new legislative proposals;
- reforms of social security systems;
- increased investment in R&D and innovation by Member States, universities and industry;
- reductions of company tax levels;
- better education on entrepreneurship;
- more flexible regulation of labour markets;
- implementation of internal market legislation.
The European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) has equally expressed "deep concern about the continued erosion of Europe's competitiveness", drawing attention to the continued absence of competitive investment conditions in EU Member States which results in increasing de-industrialisation. ERT has identified three priority areas: the framework for business competitiveness, an innovation strategy based on education, R&D and entrepreneurship, and efficient decision-making at EU level.
The Social Platform, representing European social NGOs, however, has warned that social policies are more than ever subordinated to economic, growth and budgetary policy. Emphasising that that economic growth does not in itself produce a socially integrated society, the Social Platform calls on governments to take concrete action to achieve social goals. The balanced approach agreed in 2000 must be revived and implemented, as competitivene ss and growth alone will not deliver a prosperous, equitable and inclusive society.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has expressed its support of a discussion on growth and employment-friendly reforms provided that these benefit workers and respect social dialogue (see EURACTIV interview with John Monks, 24 March 2004). However, ETUC has emphasised that structural reforms will not be enough to deliver on the Lisbon objectives: policies also have to ensure that growth occurs effectively. In particular, ETUC has warned against the creation of a 'Super Commissioner' responsible for competitiveness as this would downgrade social and environmental policies.
The Green/EFA group in the European Parliament has criticised the total absence of environmental concerns from the debates, saying that the decision to make environmental goals part of the Lisbon strategy was being totally ignored. The Green/EFA group has repeatedly urged the Council to put the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability on an equal footing and to transform the Spring Council into a "Sustainability Council".
The Spring Summit appointed the former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok to head an independent expert group reviewing the first five years of the Lisbon strategy (see EURACTIV 24 March 2004).
The so-called 'mid term review' of the Lisbon strategy was presented to the Spring Summit in March 2005.