EU: A new Lisbon phoenix to take wing

Among many things the ambitious Swedish presidency of the European Union hopes to achieve in the next five months is a revival of the so-called 'Lisbon Process'. Some may recall that this initiative was launched in 2000 to chart the way the EU would become "the world's most dynamic, knowledge-based economy."

Rhetorically it became a bouncy castle for politicians, left and right, who could jump up and down with 'Lisbon', confident of its crowd-pleasing potential, in Brussels and Strasbourg at least. But the applause soon died - so much so the whole effort had to be revived a mere five years after it began.

It hasn't been going great guns since then, either. Not unreasonably, however, EU officials think it's worth taking out of the drawer in the context of the worst recession since the war. "Stronger economic cooperation is essential," said the economy Commissioner Joaquin Almunia recently, noting that EU unemployment was 8.5% and rising.

Also, this year has been dubbed the 'European Year of Creativity and Innovation' so surely that's relevant? Then along come the do-gooding Swedes (now holding the EU's rotating six-monthly presidency), keen to give the high five to 'green growth' which will make the environment a new priority of the Lisbon process. To that will be added labour market reform, R&D and education and skills.

The centrepiece of this latest revision will be an internet-based consultation throughout the EU organised by the European Commission. The results, officials hope, will allow them to make formal proposals for another Lisbon phoenix which should take wing early in 2010 under the next EU chairmanship, Spain.

Does this mean the subsequent stage of the Lisbon process could be transformed into a Madrid Accord, a Concordat of Brussels or some such?

If these plans truly constitute a revival, the exercise will clearly have to be re-branded. It's a political and diplomatic conceit - or evasion - that far-reaching deals should be named after the city (or even a village, like Schengen in Luxembourg) in which they were made.

In this case, multi-millions of voters confuse the Lisbon process with the Lisbon Treaty when they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Second, it's unhelpful that this pathway to the stars should be associated with one of the worst performing economies in the 27-nation bloc.

A new name should define what the initiative is about: 'Lisbon' is meaningless and 'Lisbon 2' would be perverse. After a while such place names are bleached of any significance in the minds of voters. The Treaty of Paris, anyone?

It seems the EU mantra for the coming five years will be "science, technology and innovation" (STI) - and who could disagree with that in the present crisis? Any mantra in a storm, EU leaders seem to believe.

Not so, says a group of Irish academics, government appointed, who were asked whether the failed Celtic Tiger's STI investment in a 'knowledge economy' was value for money.

Led by Professor Colm McCarthy, University College Dublin, the group concluded there was "scant evidence" that all the STI expenditure was a good way to spend taxpayers' money - thus mauling one of the main assumptions of the Lisbon process.

"Any return on this STI investment cannot be known with confidence at the start," these experts claimed. "The evidence adduced to date for the impact of STI investment on actual economic activity has not been compelling."

In other words, it's as scientific as pot-luck.

Then they go on to say the Irish government's declared aim to produce 20% more PhDs might be "counterproductive" because there was no clear business need for so many graduates to be educated up to fourth level qualifications.

What is the point of post graduate waiters or shop assistants with a handful of diplomas?

There was almost no demand in the economy for so many clever-clogs and producing even more of them could have two effects, the Irish committee pointed out.

The graduates might have to take jobs, as many do in the Nordic countries, for which they are over-qualified or, frustrated, they may emigrate to find work in which case the country gets no return on its investment in their education.

Almost a decade after the high tech wake-up call was first heard from Portugal, it is unclear how these elements will be played out. And it remains a quirky coincidence that two things most associated with the EU's recent ideological overreach - the Process and the Treaty - should both bear a Lisbon label.

* This article first appeared on the International News Services website: