June 3, 2009
These days, the Lisbon Agenda, Europe’s Growth and Jobs Programme, is making an unexpected comeback in the news. Usually in reference to José Manuel Barroso’s bid for a second term at the helm of the European Commission, portraying his commitment to this policy process as misguided, for one because the targets have not been met, but also because the Commission does not have a political mandate in many of the areas that are touched by the Lisbon process, such as education and research.
So has it really all been a flop? Ten years down the drain? All for nothing? On the surface, the evidence is indeed mixed. It is true, the two key targets of the Lisbon Agenda, a 70% employment rate and R&D spending of 3% of GDP, have not been met by all member states. But that “failure” overshadows two positive aspects that rarely get mentioned. Firstly, several member states have met these targets. Eight EU member states have employment rates in excess of 70%, while two have managed to reach the ambitious R&D goals. These countries’ success deserves to be recognised, instead of dismissing their efforts as a collective act of failure. Secondly, the targets themselves have been extremely helpful in shifting and guiding the policy debate. For example, at the beginning of the decade, policy debates and media coverage used to be dominated by unemployment, rather than employment, a concept which says much more about the health and dynamism of a labour market than the percentage of people looking for a job. So even if this particular target only helped us to shift policy attention away from an excessive focus on unemployment towards the broader concept of employment, that is already a substantial and noteworthy achievement.
And it doesn’t stop here. Targets are important policy levers, even if they are not met. They allow countries to compare themselves with others, and provide crucial goals and milestones that policy makers can use to raise awareness and bring about necessary changes and reforms. In the absence of targets, there is no ground on which to assess success and few objectives to strive towards. An example in point is a new target that is currently being formulated as part of the Strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (ET 2020), where the EU aspires to have a share of 30-34 year olds with tertiary educational attainment of at least 40% by 2020. Some countries, such as Austria, Germany and Greece, which have a comparatively low proportion of highly skilled in their workforce – 21.1%, 26.7% 26.2% respectively – initially objected to this target, while other countries, such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden, already exceed the 40% target today. So while one group of counties is unlikely to meet this target even in 11 years time, another will hardly be inspired by it as they have already reached it. What this case illustrates is how difficult it is to set EU-wide targets because the economic development of the member states are so divergent. But what would be false, and indeed dangerous to conclude, is that no targets are needed and that a failure to meet objectives means we should not have even tried.
Another area where the Lisbon Agenda in general and President Barroso in particular deserve praise is in bringing different policy spheres together. Compared to the beginning of the decade or even the time when President Barroso first entered office in late 2004, there is a much greater understanding that “social” isues such as education, skills, diversity, youth employment and equal opportunity are of fundamental importance to “economic” policy making. And there is a concerted effort underway to make “sustainability” the hallmark of future growth and job creation, and the foundation of 21st Century prosperity, giving Europe an important competitive edge vis-à-vis other countries. The old industrial-age paradigm of “social versus economic versus ecological” has been replaced by a virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing policy objectives, with countries that score better social and environmental goals, such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, also performing better economically. And in a way not seen before, this European Commission has rallied around the themes of green growth, innovation, human capital and future-oriented investment. This has led to an unprecedented amount of internal coherence within the European Commission, with the social, environmental and economic departments not on the traditional war path but oftentimes working hand in hand.
Sure, the fact that there are fewer bold announcements or aggressive comments within the European Commission and vis-à-vis the member states is in stark contrast with the last European Commission, led by Romano Prodi. But is there anyone who can seriously claim that the end of the Prodi era had anywhere near the respectability or commanding attention of the current leadership? And while the media is quick to paint the perceived lack of strong words or far-reaching new initiatives as timidity and lack of vision, it neither acknowledges its own role in leading policy makers to be overly cautious due to the strong likelihood of not getting a fair hearing in a world dominated by sound bites and negative headlines, nor does it take the time to really assess whether something is a “failure.” It is seemingly always too easy and tempting to dismiss almost a decade of hard work and real progress rather than take the time to be at the least more precise, i.e. by pointing out that some member states have met the Lisbon criteria, or even better, be more accepting of the fact that there indeed has been a change in tone, a different, less confrontational approach and a more collegiate atmosphere. That is not a sign of “failure” but simply a different kind of leadership and modus operandi, which is ultimately the prerogative of a leader in power.
Even if the current Lisbon Agenda doesn’t make the news often and is subject to much criticism, it is nonetheless an important and meaningful policy process for the EU member states. Why else is there unanimity in the Council of the European Union to carry the Lisbon process forward beyond 2010? Is there anyone, even among the harshest critics, who believes that Europe can get by without a solid, visionary and comprehensive medium- to long-term strategy for itself and its member countries? Rather than a wholesale dismissal of all the efforts that have been made to date, we would be well advised to focus our attention on constructive input, actionable ideas and sound improvements. Otherwise, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.Author : Ann Mettler