by Jerome a Paris
Wed Mar 15th, 2006 at 04:38:34 PM EST
I went to a meeting organised by a French research foundation the Fondation Robert Schuman, which was actually more of a press conference with Jacques Barrot, the (French) EU Commissioner for Transport, on the theme of "how to promote growth in Europe". That foundation, as far as I can tell, right of center and, in the good ol'days, would have been called Christian Democrat.
Barrot spoke for about an hour, and then took a few questions from the public. Of course, I was the first to jump in!
The introduction of Barrot was made by the President of the foundation, who painted an apocalyptic picture: China has 7 times higher growth than Europe! India 5 times! The USA 3 times higher! Europe's share of world GDP is declining! What can we do?
Barrot then went on to present what I imagine is the standard EU line, based on 3 main themes and 4 tools:
The main themes are the following:
- the first thing is the importance of the Single Market, which must be enforced and extended. He mentioned the service directive as amended by the EP as probably an acceptable compromise. He flagged the issue of freedom of movement from the accession countries to the old members.
- the second thing is "governance", which was a code word for (i) limiting public debt and deficits; (ii) invest in R&D, and (iii) increase the employment ratio (i.e. getting old people back to work);
- the third thing is the necessity to have popular support for Europe. That included making sure that Europe was still relevant in a world where part of the youth is globalised and lookd beyond Europe, and part closes itself to the outside world. He also flagged the need for solutions to Europe's dire natality, and for more (if controlled) immigration;
The tools the EU has at its disposal are:
- the Stability Pact, which now include more ocnstraints in good years, as opposed to only (poorly enforced) sanctions in bad years;
- the Lisbon Strategy, including the obligation for each country to present a yearly plan of reforms;
- the eurogroup (the finance ministers form the eurozone) which should see its role increase and work to coordinate policies better. He flagged coordination of the tax base (not taxe rates, but what they are calculated on) as a major task;
European projects. He mentioned Galileo, and the specific status of "common enterprise" which is used to bring competitors to work together on such big projects to set common standards, and create services to create the clientele and the market. He suggested to use such "common enterprises" in other sectors, like biofuels, search engines, police security tools (and a couple of others I missed).
He then mentioned France specifically, to say that despite the strong competitivity of its companies and the quality of its workers, was facing terrible difficulties caused by (i) the (apparently misplaced) belief that the State is the only defender of the common interest, (ii) the dominance of the public sector and the bureacracy, (iii) the (apparently misplaced) fear that "flexibility" and precarity are the same thing, and (iv) the obstacles put to reform by "corpocracies" (by which he meant unions). He said that he saw protests against the CPE as "excessive", and concluded that France should not live in fear.
As this was the conclusion of his speech, I jumped in to ask the first question, which was basically as follows:
Don't you think you are a major contributor to these fears with such catastrophist discourse, presenting European economic performance as weak when, over the last 10 years it is comparable to that in the US in terms of GDP per capita growth, and jobs growth (quoting the Economist), and that such selective use of facts is used to push a agenda exclusively geared for the benefit of companies and to lower worker pay and labor protections. what's the point of growth if wages are going down, as pushed by your policies?
He responded by mentioning again 2005 growth numbers, and then deviating into the various programmes he is running in his transport directorate (in a long and irrelevant aside), saying that it was not a catastrophist discourse, but a discourse of "mobilisation".
I did not note all the other questions, but the funny thing was that, as the debate ran, it basically ended with Barrot saying that it was dangerous for France to be so hostile to capitalism and to work, but that it was true that capitalism needed an ethic, and that it needed to be regulated, and rules enforced, and worker's rights to be protected.
In essence, the more he spoke spontaneously and on concrete topics, , the less he was on the official line, but without seemmingly noticing the contradiction. That official line is so ingrained in everybody that they don't even notice that they are effectively pushing the opposite of what they seemingly believe in. It was enlightening.
We have to keep on hammering the simple fact that the "common wisdom" is not wise, and is not even actually shared by many of those that spout it when they actually think about it. We have to make them think!