EU tests its vision with 2020 strategy

March 3, 2010

In 2000, the European Union set its sights on becoming the world’s most dynamic, knowledge-based economy by 2010. It failed. Economic recession hardly helped, but EU officials acknowledge its goals may have been a little too ambitious.

On Wednesday the European Commission, the EU executive, unveiled a new 10-year plan to boost economic growth and create jobs. The Europe 2020 strategy is intended to create a greener and more prosperous economy and will be the centrepiece of the EU’s efforts to emerge from financial crisis.

Can the 2020 strategy succeed where its predecessor, the Lisbon Agenda, failed?

Commission officials say it can. They say there will be fewer targets, they will be more realistic and member states’ compliance will be monitored more closely. With a bit of political will and a lot of hard effort, they say, the plan can succeed.

“I think now people are far more aware we need to work far more together. The economic governance of Europe is now taken on board much more,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference.

He said the introduction of the Lisbon reform treaty on Dec. 1 strengthened the Commission’s powers to monitor compliance with the strategy and there were now more instruments to do so.

 But he acknowledged everything depended on the political will of member states.

“If the member states don’t want to play ball, nothing will happen. The EU cannot impose a common strategy on anyone. If the member states don’t want it, nothing will happen. (But) I think now people are far more aware we need to work far more together.”

Are all member states completely on board with the programme? It appears not. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose commitment is vital as the head of Europe’s largest economy, has written to Barroso suggesting Germany needed proof the 2020 targets would be realistic and said a proposal to link surveillance closely to adherence to targets in the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact could make the process very political.

Some business leaders have criticized the strategy and other critics ask whether a 2020 plan is really necessary, especially as the EU already has the Stability and Growth Pact, which sets fiscal targets.

They doubt member states will be politically motivated enough to meet the goals and suggest success is unlikely unless there are proper mechanisms to punish countries that do not comply. A double-dip recession could also make it harder to achieve the targets and undermine national governments’ commitment to meeting them.

Barroso said he had faced many similar doubts in 2005 when working on a revision of the Lisbon Agenda, by which time it had already become clear the headline targets would not be met. Those doubts were overcome, he said. But on the other hand, the targets were still not met.

The new plan has some way to go before it is finalised. EU leaders will discuss it at a summit on March 25-26 with a view to signing off on a final version in June. Judging by the concerns already expressed, plenty of work is still needed to win over business and political leaders.

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