Is 2008 a watershed for Europe’s ‘Lisbon Agenda’?

It’s all really good news for the EC, according to the report European Growth and Jobs Monitor: Indicators of Success in the Knowledge Economy 2008 released today by Allianz SE, one of Europe’s leading financial service providers and the Brussels-based think tank The Lisbon Council. Indeed the report goes on to claim that 2008 marks a watershed for Europe (see our earlier report on the EC’s assessment of Lisbon in 2007). When some parts of the world are reeling from more and more bad news stories about economic slow-downs and rising debt, this claim surely needs to be looked at more closely.

According to Allianz SE, despite earlier set backs and significant policy reorientations and renovations (see Kok Review 2004) as a consequence since 2005, the Lisbon strategy is now believed to be achieving its goals.

The report notes:

…at the time of writing, Europe outpaces the United States in economic growth. And, for the first time in more than 10 years, productivity is growing faster on a quarterly average basis than in the US – an intriguing trend which, if it proves sustainable, could signal a real turning point in Europe’s decade long effort to establish itself as truly “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”, as the original Lisbon Agenda proposed. In other words… …Lisbon is working.

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However as Financial Times reporter, Tony Barber, notes:

It sounds almost too good to be true. The report’s tone would certainly surprise many political leaders and businessmen in the US and Asia, where Europe is often portrayed as a continent in relative economic decline. In fact, when you read the Lisbon Council report in full, you begin to suspect that its real message is that the European economy, though strong in many respects, has obvious weaknesses as well. For example, on research and development spending, there has been “limited progress” and “most countries have a lot of catching up to do”.

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Looked at more closely, it is clear this up-beat report hides what might be regarded as more disturbing facts.

For instance, spending on R&D, one of the big targets for Europe in realizing a knowledge-based economy, is still a long way off target. Add to this that a number of education systems in Europe are also off target with high-drop out rates of young learners whilst in countries like Germany only about one-fifth of 15-year-olds plan to go on to university and the picture becomes less rosy.

Leaving aside for the moment the contentious matter of whether greater levels of participation in higher education automatically lead to a knowledge-based economy, it is evident that there are several ways of reading this ‘good news’.

As we can see from the table of current ranking and one year ago, it is not so much a question of Lisbon now being realised–if we view this as a regional strategy, but some economies across Europe currently performing much stronger than others.

In other words, we are seeing the effects of the strong performance of some countries (Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Sweden) and the weak performance of others, especially Italy.

What is certain from the report is that higher education will continue to be a center piece of European policy and that the 2007 agenda – to keep up the pace of change – is likely to continue to ‘shake up’ the sector in continuing radical ways.

Susan Robertson