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Osborne wants EU to be more like US

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Opinion European ministers have pinned their hopes on more targets to solve the riddle posed so sycophantically by shadow chancellor George Osborne this week in a speech to IT bigwigs in California: How come you Yanks are so big, bold and beautiful, while us Europeans are such wet and weedy sucklers of the great American teat?

It is a question that has been posed many times before, most notably by those European ministers who drew up the Lisbon Agenda, the pipe dream that committed European ministers in 2000 to becoming the "most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010".

True to the great tradition of highfalutin' European declarations, another batch of 34 European ministers have agreed another set of 2010 targets which they say are in the Lisbon mould. But, instead of being a plan Osborne would want to show off to his new California chums, it showed just how different Europe remains to the US.

One thing Lisbon saw from its economic perspective was that in order for Europe to become as "dynamic" as the US, its citizens need be clued up on technology. Osborne had something of Lisbon in him when he said to an audience of Silicon Valley go-getters, you're better than anyone else, and you have more to show for it, and you know why? "It's about the entrepreneurial ethos of Californian universities."

If only European universities could foster the "growth of dynamic new companies" like the Yanks do with the help of their easy capital and "cheap and effective" patent system, he said.

Patents offer an interesting perspective on Osborne's question. Most European experts agree that the US system is cheap, but they also think it is lax and of poor quality.

The European system may not be perfect, frayed by national differences as it is, but it is steeped in proud tradition and its officers are meticulous about quality. It is also fettered by heritage enshrined in different national constitutions. The European patent office expects it could take 10 years before current reform of the European system will deliver the first ever Community patent. The last set of reforms, the 2000 revision of the European Patent Convention, is still to be ratified.

Oh, for a blank sheet of paper and a decent draughtsman. The US system, like much of everything else they have, was drawn on a blank sheet (the competence of the draughtsman is _).

The EC thinks the blank sheet afforded East European countries like Estonia by the wholesale rejection of their Communist heritage has given them the opportunity to leapfrog much of Western Europe in the official league of dynamic digital societies.

This means something for Lisbon, but from a fettered European perspective. The new e-Inclusion targets commit Europeans to ensuring 90 per cent of citizens have broadband access by 2010 because there is evidence that closing the digital divide is good for the economy. That means helping the poor and needy, or recognising that Lisbon does not have a blank sheet to work on, it has social heritage, an aspiration of equality.

Patent reform and other attempts at improving the European single market that came out of Lisbon, meanwhile, chug along nicely and offer a useful perspective Osborne might consider when his feet are back on firm ground in London Heathrow.

Why indeed are there so many great US technology firms? And why did all those great British computer firms like Apricot, Psion, even Amstrad, not bear up under competition from their mighty opponents across the Atlantic? Why did Elonex, once such an arrogant little PC manufacturer, fall into administration this week and not become a Dell?

A better defined single market might have helped them.

Yet Osborne thinks there's something amiss with the European character and has called for a "cultural revolution" that might instil in it something of the frontier spirit. If they could get excited about multinational world domination, about being number one, maybe then they would be great like Dell.

Before he gets too carried away with this idea, there is one more question he might ask of those Europeans fond of slow food and shopkeeping: Could they be bothered? ®

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