EU industry commissioner Günter Verheugen presented plans Wednesday to make the European manufacturing sector more competitive amid French criticism that Brussels is not doing enough to help it.
Strike action in France: politicians like to blame the EU
A day after a French broadside against the commission's industrial policy, Verheugen insisted that the way forward for the European industry was through a "clear rejection of protection or sheltering of markets" and "a clear refusal to engage in (state) interventionism."
French President Jacques Chirac said on Tuesday that it was "not normal" for the commission -- in his view -- not to get involved to ease the blow of a big international lay-off plan by US computer maker Hewlett Packard, which is hitting France particularly hard.
"The vocation of Europe and the European institutions is ... above all to defend Europe, defend the economic, financial and social interests of Europe," Chirac said.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen
Recent calls for "economic patriotism" from French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have also raised eyebrows in Brussels, where the level playing field of the EU's internal market is considered sacrosanct.
However, Verheugen insisted that "there is no way back" to the days of wide state intervention in the industrial sector.
Barroso warns against populism
On Tuesday, European Commission President Jose Barroso spoke out against the criticism from France and warned of "anti-European populism."
"One form of this populism is directed against the market, and the other against the European idea, trying to lay blame with the European institutions," Barroso said, without naming France directly.
In recent months, France has increasingly pointed the finger of blame for social problems -- highlighted in the nationwide strike action that gripped France on Tuesday -- at the EU institutional level. The government in Paris was one of the most vocal proponents of the introduction of strict limits on the import of cheap Chinese textiles, for example. During the dispute, Verheugen said that the textile industries in certain countries had proved that niches existed for them, even in a world with open markets.
In the face of the commission's critics, Verheugen sought on Wednesday to talk up its grand plans to inject new dynamism into European industry, though announcements about the plans have so far been light on concrete details for future action.
The plan aims to improve competitiveness, intellectual property rights, regulation, industrial research and innovation, market access, skills, and managing structural changes. It will set up committees and carry out studies on select industries, ranging from pharmaceuticals, to defense and fashion.