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The European Commission’s
current predicament with
the Lisbon strategy reflects
the real difficulties at the
heart of the five year old
reform agenda, suggests
Alasdair Murray.

          hen José Manuel Barroso took            by their success in vetoing the appointment     commission to back down on apparently
          office in the autumn of 2004            of Rocco Buttiglione as commissioner, have      unpopular economic measures, such as
          he made it clear that economic          shown an unprecedented willingness to           the services directive or competition rules.
reform would be his main priority. The new        challenge the commission’s policies. Green      Barroso – who has not forgotten his own
commission president stated that he wanted        and Socialist MEPs have repeatedly opposed      stint as prime minister – appears only too
to focus the EU’s Lisbon agenda on the key        what they describe as the commission’s          ready to accommodate the complaints of EU
objectives of growth and employment, and          “neo-liberal” economic approach. As a           governments.
thus rekindle political momentum for reform       result, Barroso has been forced to stress          Most notably, the commission has sought
among the member states.                          that he has no intention of watering down the   to placate the French government’s fears
   However, barely three months into his          commission’s commitment to environmental        that the services directive could become
five-year term of office that strategy is under   and social policies.                            a major negative issue in that country’s
threat. Barroso’s economic policies have             Second, some member states – most            constitutional treaty referendum. Earlier
come under sustained criticism from two           notably France and Germany – have               this month, Charlie McCreevy, the internal
sides. First, centre-left MEPs, emboldened        increased the political pressure on the         market chief, took the unusual step of

March 14th 2005                                                                                              the Parliament magazine • 25

Critics are beginning to question                   source of strength and a weakness. Since        argued that public criticism only played
whether Barroso, like his                           it contains ‘something for everyone’, the       into the hands of their political opponents,
                                                    Lisbon agenda has at least some support         making reform even more difficult. However,
predecessor Romano Prodi,
                                                    in almost every constituency, be it business    it is unfortunate that the commission has
is destined to be a weak and                        lobbies, trade unions or environmentalists.     backed away from ‘naming and shaming’
ineffectual commission president.                   But the lack of focus also means that no        individual EU members. A clear, non-
Undoubtedly, Barroso badly                          constituency feels enough ‘ownership’ to        politicised assessment of progress towards
needs European leaders to give                      really push for progress.                       the economic reform goals should be an
his economic reform plans a                            There is no easy solution to this problem.   integral part of the Lisbon strategy. Already,
                                                    Integrationist critics of the Lisbon agenda     the commission’s latest progress review
thumping endorsement at their                       suggest that if the EU wants to make            is mild in its criticism, compared with the
summit on March 22-23.                              faster progress on economic reform, it          previous year’s report.
                                                    should make greater use of the ‘Community          Ultimately, the success of the Lisbon agenda
                                                    method’. However, it is not clear in what new   will depend on the commission’s ability to
                                                    areas the EU should employ the Community        build political momentum behind reform. The
                                                    method. The Community method may                EU needs to focus on a limited number of
                                                    be the best way of prising open energy          achievable objectives and demonstrate it is
                                                    and telecoms markets. But it would be           making progress. Success in these measures
                                                    problematic for deregulating national labour    should then feed through into improved
                                                    markets or modernising education systems.       economic performance, encouraging member
                                                    The commission not only lacks the expertise     states to take further steps.
                                                    and resources to plan such wide-ranging            The commission seems to agree with this
                                                    reforms for the member states, but also         point. Its mid-term review of Lisbon concisely
                                                    lacks the legitimacy.                           lists a number of immediate objectives, for
                                                       In its mid-term review of the Lisbon         example curbing red tape, pushing through
publicly disowning the draft legislation.           process, the commission has come up with        the services directive and completing the
McCreevy admitted that the existing                 a number of ideas on how to accelerate the      single market in energy and transport.
directive “would not fly” and suggested the         Lisbon process. The commission has called          Inevitably, critics were quick to accuse
commission would welcome parliamentary              on each member-state to produce an annual       the commission of downgrading the social
amendments to introduce exemptions for              Lisbon ‘action plan’ detailing the measures     and environmental aspirations of the Lisbon
sensitive sectors, such as healthcare, and          they plan to take to meet their Lisbon          agenda. All parts of the programme are
water down the controversial ‘country of            targets. This action plan would replace the     important. But the first half of the decade
origin’ principle.                                  plethora of existing national and EU progress   has shown that the EU will not make any
   As a result, critics are beginning to question   reports and thus add clarity and focus. The     progress unless its sets clear priorities. For
whether Barroso, like his predecessor               commission also wants each EU country to        the EU’s credibility, legitimacy and long-term
Romano Prodi, is destined to be a weak              appoint a ‘Mr or Ms Lisbon’ at government       economic success, it is imperative that it
and ineffectual commission president.               level to oversee national reform efforts.       delivers on key Lisbon commitments over
Undoubtedly, Barroso badly needs European              However, the commission has rejected         the next five years. Drawing up a realistic
leaders to give his economic reform plans a         another key proposal made by the Lisbon         list of targets for the coming year is a good
thumping endorsement at their summit on             review panel headed by Wim Kok. Rather          starting point. The commission now needs to
March 22-23.                                        than becoming tougher in ‘naming and            demonstrate that it can resist the unceasing
   But the commission’s current predicament         shaming’ slow-reforming EU members, the         complaints of its critics and deliver on its
cannot simply be attributed to Barroso’s            commission wants to offer more support          commitments.
desire to appease all his critics. It also          to those who struggle to fulfil their reform
reflects the difficulties at the heart of           commitments.                                          Alasdair Murray is deputy director
the Lisbon reform agenda. Lisbon is an                 Barroso again appears too willing to bow          at the Centre for European Reform.
extremely broad-ranging and ambitious               to member state pressure. Governments                      The CER’s Lisbon Scorecard V
programme. However, its breadth is both a           in Germany and elsewhere in the EU had                         is published on March 17

26 • the Parliament magazine                                                                                                March 14th 2005

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