Fri, Jun 03, 2005 - Page 9 News List

EU strategizing is at a crossroads

Despite the failure of EU elites to explain their motivations and processes to average Europeans, there is hope that Euroskepticism will abate

By Nicolas Tenzer

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Whatever happened to the EU's "Lisbon Strategy"? Not only is the public almost entirely ignorant of the EU's policy agenda for boosting competitiveness, economic growth and employment, but this ignorance extends to many intellectuals, academics, CEOs and even some members of parliament. For example, in all of the debates on the EU's constitutional treaty, neither its supporters nor its opponents have so much as mentioned the Lisbon Strategy. It is little wonder, then, that Euroskepticism -- in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere -- is on the rise.

Despite the success and popularity of programs like Erasmus, an educational exchange initiative, citizens don't perceive the EU's contribution to superior education or training. Indeed, the last Eurobarometer survey on the Lisbon Strategy found that the European public sees little relation between EU policies and economic competitiveness.

Of course, some laboratories receive EU grants, but without recognizing a specific European mission in research policies. Europe is generally considered more as a constraint than as a plan, more as an instrument than as a vision nourished by a clear and credible idea.

The responsibility for this state of affairs lies with Europe's ruling class and policymakers. As a recent assessment by former Dutch prime minister Wim Kok pointed out, EU member states have generally not made the Lisbon Strategy a high priority, and they balk at giving the EU the means to pursue more ambitious policies to offset this neglect. It is difficult to ask citizens to be enthusiastic about aims that their leaders ignore.

At bottom, the problem is one of legitimacy. The main targets -- jobs, growth and research -- are considered legitimate from the standpoint of fairness when described in general terms. But the concrete policies needed to realize this aim are not, since reforming the welfare state and labor markets means more competition, which scares many citizens.

Legitimacy is even more problematic regarding recognition, which implies a feeling of community and attachment. When we are faced with conflicting choices -- burden-sharing through taxation, the organization of the public sector, the status of public employees and so on -- member states are considered to be the only bodies entitled to decide.

In short, when the EU brings subsidies, it receives congratulations; but when it pushes for unpopular reforms, it becomes the scapegoat for political, social and economic failures.

From an economic point of view, the Lisbon Strategy's aim is to transform Europe into a power able to compete on equal terms with the US today and the great Asian countries. But this aim does not appear to be creating a European identity, as the euro has. Within many states, "power" isn't politically correct. Above all, there is no link between national power and European power. If we want Europe to be more legitimate, we must explain how to tie these two dimensions of power.

Aside from ignorance of the Lisbon Strategy among the public and inaction on long-term reform among member states, a second problem concerns the lack of acceptance of the virtues of competition -- the most effective way to ensure quality, innovation and low prices for consumers. Competition also puts an end to rent-seeking and protection of traditional corporate advantages.

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