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Europe 2020: A more successful chapter of the “Lisbon story”?

For the success of the Europe 2020 Strategy, it is important that Member States – including Hungary – should not consider it as something obligatory, but as an opportunity for breakthrough. What are the preconditions of this success?

Debates over Europe’s competitiveness seem to constitute a never-ending story. It began when the first oil crisis in 1973–1974 hobbled the dynamic growth of Western European countries. The received shock made the objective of catching up to Europe’s most important competitors – the US and Japan – unrealistic.

After a few years of indecision, the European Community (today: European Union, EU) launched programs aiming at the enhancement of economic growth. These programs – including the successful creation of the Single Market and of the Economic and Monetary Union – however, were unable to substantially change the situation. In addition, since the turn of the millennium, the number of Europe’s important global competitors has considerably increased.

The EU’s Lisbon Strategy, born in 2000, intended to be a specific response to the above tendencies. However, because of the problems mainly related to its unrealistic objectives, rigid structure and missing EU-level instruments (including financing), the strategy was not successful. Its renewed and redesigned successor – due to the effects of the world financial and economic crisis that hit Europe in 2008 – has been born earlier than originally planned: the Europe 2020 Strategy was presented by the European Commission on March 3 last year and was then finalized and approved on June 17 by the European Council.

The objectives and the key areas – part of which were already in the Lisbon Strategy – did not cause any surprise. The novelty of the Europe 2020 Strategy lies in its coherent structure, including the overarching priorities, the objectives (more than there were earlier, and all objectives updated according to the situation in 2010) and the so-called flagship initiatives. Just as it was in the case of the Lisbon Strategy, the question is whether the objectives are realistic, and whether the system allows for adequate flexibility.

The fact that the Europe 2020 Strategy takes the international environment much more into account than the previous program gives some ground for optimism. The strategy is “embedded” into global processes – as such, it is an adequate reaction to the financial and economic crisis.

Coordinated action requires a well-functioning institutional system. Tasks continue to be shared by EU and national level institutions, thus efficient coordination – both between different policy fields and between different levels of administration – is one of the key conditions of the success of the Europe 2020 Strategy.

For the Europe 2020 Strategy to be successful, it is crucial to find a good balance between the main challenges Europe is facing – including the consequences of the financial and economic crisis, the issue of cohesion and also the long-term enlargement of the EU –, and to avoid the creation of contradictory programs. From this point of view, the ‘umbrella’ nature of the Europe 2020 Strategy gives grounds for optimism. Success will to a great extent depend on the real intentions of the Member States. These intentions could be revealed starting as early as the second semester of 2011, during the debate on the EU’s post-2013 financial perspective.

For the success of the Europe 2020 Strategy, it is important that Member States – including Hungary – should not consider it as something obligatory, but as an opportunity for a breakthrough. If such an approach prevails, the regular tasks related to the realization of the strategy would not be perceived merely as mandatory “homework” for Member States, but could become parts of a program with real content.

A generally not discussed aspect of the Europe 2020 Strategy is that its success could contribute to the fading away of the still persisting distinction between “old” and “new” Member States. Thus the successful implementation of the strategy could provide an opportunity for a “big leap” (in a way similar to the introduction of the euro) for the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and in 2007. At a time when ideas about a multi-speed Europe are becoming fashionable again, this aspect should not be underestimated.


Tamás Szemlér is senior research fellow at ICEG European Center and head of the Chair of Economics at the Budapest Business School