New EU Commission head Jose Barroso has outlined his vision for the next five years. It includes turning the EU into an economic super-power, while also ensuring environmental and social issues don't get left behind.
Treading carefully in parliament: Jose Barroso
How do you foster more prosperity and jobs for a community of 25 nations with almost 450 million people, when growth rates differ extremely, not just from country to country, but also from region to region? For Jose Barroso, EU Commission head since November 2004, this will be the cardinal question of his five-year term in office. The Portuguese leader recently outlined his approach to this question in a speech on the commission's strategic goals.
Work and wealth for Europeans
Barroso intends to get rid of superfluous regulations and trim the fat off the EU's notoriously bulging bureaucracy. In future, the EU will spend at least three instead of the current 1.1 percent of gross domestic product on research and education. Europe's labor markets will have to become more flexible. And soon, it's supposed to become much easier for companies to offer services across borders. "Employer-friendly Europe," is the name of the goal. But that demands a reform process "as bold as the creation of the economic community, the launch of the euro or European expansion," Barroso said.
Together with the EU industry commissioner, Germany's Günter Verheugen, Barroso intends to take key steps toward the stated goal of making the EU the most competitive economic region in the world. The dream was formalized on paper by the European Council at a special meeting in Lisbon in 2000, and it was projected that certain aims would be met by 2010. But in the face of an average growth rate of just two percent, the commission has since parted with the ambitious timeframe, as the Financial Times Deutschland reported.
"A stupid, useless debate"
Barroso's economic and political measures are not exactly groundbreaking. But the priority that he originally planned to give economic development and job creation -- ahead of other issues like improving social cohesiveness and protecting the environment -- was a novelty. In mid-January, Barroso and current EU President Jean-Claude Juncker (photo) clashed over the issue of priorities. Juncker called the discussion about whether competitiveness was more important than social policy and environmental projects "stupid, useless debate" -- the three goals were not mutually exclusive.
EU parliamentarians from the Greens, Social Democrats and even some from the Christian conservative European People's Party bloc sided with Juncker. Environmental groups such as the German organization BUND and Greenpeace vowed to fight Barroso's order of priorities.
Compromises or cosmetics?
Site of the debate: the EU Parliament
When it came time to officially present his five-year plan in the European Parliament, Barroso chose his words carefully. Prosperity, solidarity (which he said includes protecting the environment) and security are the most important strategic goals. Giving priority to economic issues was no longer stated so explicitly. The toned-down program was accepted by all the fractions -- with certain reservations, even by the Greens.
Despite this, many remain sceptical as to whether Barroso changed his intentions, or simply made some cosmetic touches to his rhetoric.
"Barroso held a well-balanced speech, in which he even took on suggestions from the left," said Jan Marinus Wiersma, deputy parliamentary group leader of the Social Democrats in the EU Parliament. "We just have to be careful now and wait to see if he keeps to his word."
The moment of truth is coming ever closer. On Wednesday this week, the EU Commission will lay out a new, concrete plan of action based on the Lisbon agenda. Then, it'll be easier to see whether Barroso really did sacrifice his own preferences.