70% of the active population was to be gainfully employed by now, research spending increased to 3% of GDP, economic growth to 3% p.a.: those were the main targets of the Lisbon Strategy launched back in the year 2000 – with ten years to achieve them. Now time’s about up and the grand European undertaking is about to culminate in a washout. Not the slightest trace of that knowledge-based economy that was supposed to become “the most dynamic and competitive in the world” by 2010. In ten years, employment has increased by a little less than 4 percentage points to plateau at an average of under 66%. Spending on research and development comes to slightly over half the target level and still falls far short of the figures of our main global rivals. The growth rate, dragged down by the crisis, has dropped to an average of 0.8% – with a devastating impact on unemployment, which had shrunk from 12% to 7% since 2000, but which is ballooning again to roughly 10% in the wake of the recession.

What is to be done? Well, there’s no point in flagellating ourselves. The age of optimism, fuelled by unassailable accomplishments at the beginning of the century like the birth of the single market and the euro, is now history. Now we march to the tune of realism. The world has changed, globalisation is gaining ground. What’s worse, it is China, to everyone’s surprise, that has achieved what Europe set out to do. But Europe hasn’t thrown in the towel. The new totem has no name, not even that of the Portuguese capital. This time around it’s a number: “2020”, perhaps in a bid to rival "1992", the erstwhile slogan of the single market. Now that the first ten-year plan has flopped, we are trying to map out a new one. The deliberations between the 27 member states started in November and will conclude in mid-January, after which European leaders will convene in Brussels on 11 January for a preliminary informal meeting to appraise a tentative draft of the Commission’s proposals. A follow-up summit in March will set out a concrete strategy to be submitted to the finance ministers. So it will be up to the European Council in June to rubber-stamp the 2020 plan.

An error not to be repeated

It won’t be a revolution. More of an updating and rescheduling of the targets, whilst searching within the EU for “new sources of growth capable of creating jobs lost to the recession” and, outside the EU, for ways to take advantage of globalisation and interdependence between nations. And all of that in a markedly tougher context than in 2000, given the tighter budgetary constraints and aggravated social problems facing a growing European population. According to a tentative EU document, the strategy will lay down three priorities: knowledge, i.e. education, research and the digital economy with a view to fuelling growth carried by high added-value innovations; “flexicurity”, entrepreneurial spirit and lifelong learning to stimulate creativity and maintain the social equilibrium; and a greener, more competitive and integrated economy to boost productivity and efficiency at every level, from energy to transportation. Plus a qualitative improvement in public spending. If Lisbon came a cropper, it was because the method was wrong: the objectives were right, but not binding, and left to the goodwill of national governments. Will the new “EU 2020 strategy” succeed in avoiding the same mistake? Many don’t think so. There are, at present, too many nationalisms in Europe. And if that’s how it’s going to be, the whole exercise, whether couched in old terms or new, is once again liable to prove much ado about nothing, or next to nothing.