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Financial Times: Rebel seeks innovators to shake up Europe

By Leslie Crawford in Madrid
Published: January 15 2008 01:12 | Last updated: January 15 2008 01:12

The European Union has wasted too much time squabbling over how to share power among its member states, when it should have been working to recoup economic and political influence in the world, says Felipe González, the former Spanish prime minister.

The EU asked Mr González last month to chair a committee that will ponder the future of Europe. The former premier, who took Spain into the EU in 1986, was surprised at his nomination.

I have been excessively critical over the direction the EU has taken since at least the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said.

He agrees with critics at the European parliament, who say the EU should have given the task to MEPs rather than an unelected committee. (“I would also have been against setting up this committee,” he said)

But now he has accepted the job, he intends to speak “with freedom and clarity”. Mr González wants his report, which will be delivered in 2010, to be “a wake-up call” for a continent that is rapidly losing economic and geopolitical power.

The report will contain recommendations on how to reverse Europe’s decline. It will aim to shake up the cosy corporatism of Europe’s business and political establishments, and it will propose solutions for Europe’s “worrying” energy dependence on unstable foreign regimes, Mr González said.

“We are losing influence in the geopolitical sphere. We are losing influence in economic and technological terms, and as a result, we are also becoming less relevant to our citizens – by losing competitiveness and value,” Mr González said.

In addition to Mr González, the EU appointed Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former president of Latvia, and Jorma Ollila, chairman of Nokia and Royal Dutch Shell, to the “reflection group” on the future of Europe. Mr González said he would like a majority of the remaining six members of the committee, to be appointed by September, to be experts in technological innovation. Mr González said he would seek out “rebels” rather than establishment figures, whatever their age.

For Mr González, Europe’s loss of geopolitical influence, and its declining economic power, go hand in hand.

“I began to worry about this during the conflict in the Balkans, when I discovered that 95 per cent of the intelligence Europe received, and which was necessary to conduct military operations on the ground, came from US satellites,” Mr González said. “This overdependence on US technology was alarming. It deepened my perception that Europe had become distracted and did not realise the importance of the technological revolution that was under way.”

Mr González said his committee would tackle the failure of the EU’s “Lisbon agenda”, launched in 2000 to close the technology gap with the US.

“The Lisbon agenda identified the symptoms of Europe’s malaise – lower growth, loss of competitiveness, widening technology gap – but misdiagnosed the disease,” Mr González said.

“Europe suffers from an extraordinary corporate rigidity,” he said. “And I am not only talking about the power of trade unions and labour rights. There is also enormous rigidity on the corporate side. You only have to compare the rankings of US and European companies now and 30 years ago. Most of the top US companies today were not around in the 1980s. There is a lot of mobility: it is a system that rewards risk, initiative and efficiency and allows companies to succeed as well as to fail.

“In Europe, there have been hardly any changes in the corporate rankings. Business, labour and political elites protect each other. We stifle innovation. That is why Europe has failed to produce a Bill Gates. It is a cultural problem.” Mr González said.

The continent’s prosperity, he said, was another factor impeding change. “One of the key questions for me, then, is what it takes to make Europe react,” he said.

Mr González said his committee would also tackle Europe’s acute dependence on energy imports. He forecast that member states would have to “reconsider” their position on nuclear energy.

He also sought to calm fears of eurosceptics, particularly in Britain, that his committee would recommend yet more powers for the European Commission. If anything, he said, the report would suggest a scaling back of the EU’s regulatory powers, which he described as “excessive and of little ­relevance”.

Mr González said he was aware of the disagreements within the EU over whether his committee should discuss enlargement, including Turkey’s membership, which France so bitterly opposes. The relevant question there, he said, was not “what is Europe” but rather which citizens are willing to share a common project.

The 65-year-old Spaniard knows there is a risk the EU will ignore the committee’s recommendations, which will be non-binding. “The fact that I have no institutional role means I don’t have to be a professional optimist,” Mr González said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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