The European Commission (EC) excels in setting lofty goals for its member states – but it is regularly accused of being slow to turn its ambitions into measurable results. A case in point is the Lisbon Strategy, signed in March 2000. Sounding more like a chess manoeuvre than a political agenda, the strategy is a commitment by the European Union (EU) to be “the world’s most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010”.
Inevitably, the Commission has looked to information technology to play a key role in achieving that aim, and half way into its decade-long journey, it has handed the task of channeling its IT energies and multi-billion euro resources to a seasoned Eurocrat – though one with little demonstrable knowledge of technology.
Viviane Reding became Commissioner for Information Society and Media in November 2004 when José Manuel Barroso’s new commission took office. Despite her lack of exposure to high-tech issues, she has been quick to proclaim that “information technologies and the information society are a way for the Lisbon Strategy to really take off.”
A journalist by training and a career politician since 1979, Reding is a colourful character, with strong ties to the film industry, sports and the media. Variety, the US entertainment industry magazine, described the Luxembourg-born politician as “a natty dresser and bon vivant”. In 2004, while European Commissioner for Education and Culture, she was voted ‘European Personality of the Year’ at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
While her political credentials may be impressive, her experience of the technology industry is barely measurable – and her recent appointment raised a few eyebrows in Brussels and beyond. “It’s not clear what the appointment of Mrs Reding means. We hope she’ll get to grips with the brief and [can] get her mind round it, but [technology is] not an area she’s shown much policy interest in,” says Paul Hofheinz of the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based policy think-tank.
Perhaps sensitive to these criticisms, Reding has used her early speeches to send the kind of message that the European technology sector wants to hear. “Innovation is the essential driving force for competitiveness. The new technologies sector is the one most likely to stimulate growth in Europe,” she said in a recent address.
And she wants her support for the technology industry to be taken seriously: “Europe invests less than its competitors in technology and is lagging behind when it comes to production, services and the use of information and communications technology (ICT). Closing the gap calls for concerted action by the European institutions, the Member States and the private sector. It is up to the Commission, and therefore the Commissioner to give the necessary lead, to galvanise energies and to work towards common objectives.”
To that aim, Reding will have considerable resources at her disposal. With around 1,100 staff, the Directorate General of Information Society is one of the largest in the EC. She is also responsible for the EC’s Information Society Technologies research funding which, with a budget of €3.6 billion set for 2002 to 2006, forms the largest portion of the EU’s Sixth Research and Development Framework Programme.
But Reding will need to do better than her predecessors at deploying those resources if she is to make a major contribution to the Lisbon Strategy. According to a review of the programme conducted by former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, there has been poor progress so far, thanks to “an overloaded agenda, poor co-ordination and conflicting priorities”.
To put that right, Reding must quickly deliver on some of the goals to which she has publicly committed. Among these are an update to the e-Europe 2005 Action Plan, which aims to recruit ICTs to develop online public services; a cost-benefit analysis of the Sixth Framework Programme to ensure that the paybacks of research efforts are more evident to EU citizens; and a re-invigorated commitment to the challenges of e-accessibility as it relates to an ageing European population and citizens with disabilities.
Unless the EC begins to address such issues – and makes headway on the broader technology foundations that underpin the Lisbon Strategy – Reding, despite decades of political savvy, will struggle to quell scepticism about how effective any European policy can be in shaping the local technology ecosystem.