The European Union executive Wednesday outlined a new long-term plan for economic revival which, in a break with the past, puts the focus squarely on deregulation and business-friendly policies.
EU Commission head Barroso: Given up on being top of the world?
The plan, while urging EU governments to accelerate reforms to their labor markets and to cut red tape, ditches the EU's long-stated ambition of forging the "world's most dynamic economy" by 2010. The report marks the mid-way review of the EU's five-year-old "Lisbon Strategy" of reform, launched amid much fanfare in the Portuguese capital with the goal of overtaking the United States in the competitiveness stakes.
"The central message of the last five years is that Europe must refocus if it is to refuel its flagging economic engine," European Commission president Jose Barroso told a news conference. After the EU's achievements in forging a single market, a common currency and last year's addition of 10 more member states, he said the drive to slash unemployment through higher growth "is Europe's next great project."
The new-look Lisbon Strategy will be presented to EU leaders at a March summit where, diplomats believe, it will win strong approval. The 2010 target is no longer mentioned in the report, giving formal recognition to the widespread view that owing to years of economic slowdown and a lack of reformist zeal, the EU is nowhere near ready to meet the goal.
EU too far behind
But Barroso, who was in the vanguard of Europe's free-marketeers during his time as Portugal's prime minister, made clear that reforms could no longer be put off. He said the EU was now averaging economic growth of just 2 percent, compared to 3.5 percent in the United States, while China and India are marking "huge strides" at a time that the EU's populations are ageing rapidly.
Protection against poverty
"A job is the best weapon against poverty," he added, on the day that new figures confirmed unemployment in Germany is now at its highest level since the 1930s.
But Barroso also sought to assuage the fears of left-wingers and environmentalists who fear he wants to take the EU down the road to a US-style, freewheeling capitalism with minimal safeguards and rampant poverty.
"It is as if I have three children -- the economy, our social agenda, and the environment," he said, explaining that all deserved equal love.
The report recommended a range of action:
The commission's plan would appear to mark a radical break with a past in which Brussels was caricatured as a busybody keen to spread its reach into every facet of life in EU countries.
Former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen
It received a warm welcome from European conservatives and a qualified one from liberals, but was met with hostility by the Party of European Socialists (PES). Left-wingers accused the commission of ditching Europe's "social model" of consensual politics and ignoring the ability of Scandinavian nations to stay competitive despite their high welfare costs. "We have, in the most successful economies in Europe, proven that the right and modern framework for growth and competitiveness does include social and environmental policies," said PES president Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (above), a former Danish prime minister. "Those are not part of the problem but part of the solution."