EUROPE: A new Lisbon by another name?

A revival of the European Union's much-lauded but also much-mocked 'Lisbon Process' for developing a knowledge-based economy is to be pressed forward by Sweden as president of the EU before the year's end. Originally launched in 2000, the aims are ambitious and touch all the right buttons for economic growth in today's world - science, technology and innovation. But big changes are looming and some academics think the whole approach may be misguided.

The aim in 2000 was to chart the way for the EU to become "the world's most dynamic, knowledge-based economy". This went down well with politicians, left and right, who seemed supremely confident of the crowd-pleasing potential of 'Lisbon' - in Brussels and Strasbourg at least.

But the applause soon died - so much so that the whole effort had to be revived a mere five years after it began.

It hasn't been going great guns since then, either. But now EU officials think it's worth taking the initiative out of the drawer again in the context of the worst recession since the Second World War. "Stronger economic cooperation is essential," European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Joaquin Almunia, said recently, noting that EU unemployment was currently at 8.5% and rising.

It may also be relevant that this year has been dubbed the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. Happily it is now Sweden's turn at the six-monthly EU presidency (which gives the country the power to set the agenda for summits and other ministerial meetings) and the Swedes are keen to push environmental policy. It means that Stockholm is giving 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 of the Lisbon Process will be internet-based consultation throughout the EU, the results of which officials hope will allow them to make formal proposals for another Lisbon phoenix to 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?

But if these plans truly constitute a revival, it's clear the exercise has to be re-branded. It is 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, though they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Secondly, 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? (You see.)

However, it seems the Commission wants the EU mantra for the coming five years to 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 government-appointed group of Irish academics, who were asked whether the failed Celtic Tiger's STI investment in a 'knowledge economy' was value for money.

Led by Professor Colm McCarthy of University College Dublin, they concluded there was "scant evidence" that 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 claim. "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.

They go on to say that the Irish government's declared aim of producing 20% more PhDs might be counterproductive because there is no "clear business need" for so many graduates to be educated up to fourth-level qualifications. What is the point of postgraduate waiters or shop assistants with a handful of diplomas?

There's almost no demand in the economy for so many clever-clogs: producing even more of them could have two effects, the Irish committee points 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's 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.