The new European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, has stressed the role of IT in making the 25-nation European Union more economically competitive.
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Barroso was speaking as he announced the crucial competition, trade and internal market portfolios for the new commission, which will take office on 1 November. Former UK trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson has been given the international trade post, former Dutch transport minister Neelie Kroes-Smit is minister for EU competition, and Ireland's ex-finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, is in charge of running the internal market.
However, the decision to award the information society portfolio to Luxembourg's Viviane Reding, who lacks experience in the sector, caused some concern in the business community.
Barroso underscored that one of his main priorities would be to boost the EU's competitiveness, economic growth and innovation through the so-called Lisbon strategy, launched in 2000 at a meeting of the European Council, and composed of EU prime ministers and presidents.
"We must reinvigorate the Lisbon strategy, which aims to make Europe the world’s most competitive economy," he said, adding, "We must seek new hi-tech means to foster growth while maintaining our industrial base."
Under the Lisbon agenda, the EU aims to become the "most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010" with a major emphasis on boosting innovation and increasing research and development spending.
Barroso's team was warmly welcomed by the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based group dedicated to advancing the cause of economic reform, deregulation and market liberalisation. The group's president, Paul Hofheinz, singled out the appointment of Kroes-Smit to replace Italy's Mario Monti as competition commissioner as a good choice.
"Her appointment is a strong signal that [Barroso] resisted pressure to give that portfolio to a poodle commissioner," he said, referring to German commissioner Günter Verheugen, newly appointed commissioner for enterprise and industry, who is seen as too willing to take orders from Berlin to protect German national interests.
Hofheinz remarked that Kroes-Smit would almost certainly continue Monti's tough stance against Microsoft in the ongoing antitrust case. "I think that's decided, though it still has to go through the courts. My impression is that there won't be any change."
Monti ordered the software giant to pay the EU's largest-ever fine of €497m (£332m), offer a version of Windows without its Media Player, and open up its server interfaces to other firms so their products can interact with those from Microsoft.
Former Irish finance minister Charlie McCreevy will take over from Frits Bolkestein, in charge of the internal market for services. His dossier will include steering the software patents directive, which was drawn up by Bolkestein, through the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. The council has already reached a pact on the scope of the directive, which will be formally agreed in September.
The European Parliament, however, has already expressed its opposition to the council agreement and has pledged to overturn provisions which, MEPs say, go too far in allowing software to be patented. The parliament will give the draft legislation its second reading late this year or early in 2005.
Meanwhile, Viviane Reding takes over information society from Finn, Erkki Liikanen. This dossier has been split off from the larger enterprise portfolio now taken by Germany's Günter Verheugen. However, the information society post has few formal powers.
The Lisbon Council's Paul Hofheinz said that Reding's appointment in charge of IT policy raised a few questions. "It's not clear what the appointment of Mrs Reding means. We hope she’ll get to grips with the brief and get her mind round it, but it's not an area she's shown much policy interest in," he said.
Simon Taylor writes for IDG News Service