Apostle of competitiveness in Brussels
One of the EU Commission's most important portfolios is in the hands of Erkki Liikanen, 49. He is strict about formulating his area of responsibility correctly, something that the media have apparently not always succeeded in doing satisfactorily. "My portfolio combines two tasks: enterprise policy & information society policy. Thus one Commissioner has been given responsibility for all central questions connected with the European Union's competitiveness."
Erkki Liikanen could be characterised as a talented and resolute political missile. He became involved in politics while still at school and was only 21 when he entered parliament in 1972. Ten years later he became Secretary of the Social Democratic Party. A stint as Minister of Finance followed in 1987-90, after which he became Finland's ambassador to the EU in Brussels. When Finland joined the Union in 1995, he was given responsibility for personnel, administrative and budgetary affairs in the Commission headed by Jacques Santer. He was one of only four members of that Commission to continue when Romano Prodi formed a new one in 1999. A very impressive career for a man who is not yet fifty.
During his years as Finance Minister, Erkki Liikanen could often be seen enjoying a morning cup of coffee in the tent where it is served in the market Square, only a short walk from the ministry. The talkative and gregarious politician was never sitting alone. Everyone knew their minister. Now he can walk the streets almost like any other mortal. A decade in Brussels has done its job. Among the Finns holding high positions connected with the Union, he is a rare veteran - and now a Commissioner in his second term.
Getting standards and norms into EU legislation
When Erkki Liikanen talks about his new task, the importance of competitiveness pops out of the woodwork. "My sphere of responsibility includes legislation connected with the information society and intended to promote competition, i.e. bring prices down. We also have an annual research budget of about 1 billion Euro, likewise with the purpose of improving competitiveness. On the enterprise side, the Single Market in goods is included in my remit: we are trying to use legislation as a means of strengthening the common standards and norms that are so important to businesses. The work likewise includes the general conditions in which enterprise and innovation can flourish. Clear rules and effective competition are the goal."
The Commissioner's tasks run along two tracks: on the one hand, the effective functioning of the Single Market must be protected, but the interests of companies, on the other, have to be defended. "Both are included in this work. The interests of European business have to be defended vis-à-vis other regions and their collective global competitiveness strengthened. When the subject of new members of the Union comes up, my main focus of interest is mainly on how well their economies, corporate sectors and telecommunications will be able to keep up with development. I am also following the enlargement projects as a member of the Commission. Sessions of the Commission are, of course, a large and important part of this work, because it is at them that progress in handling matters is made."
Erkki Liikanen's problems include the food issues that have hit the headlines in so many ways in recent months, but they also relate to the Union's trade links with the United States. "Relations with the United States seem to have become a permanent question in these matters. European consumers are very sensitive at the moment. People want to know what all foodstuffs have in them. New legislation now being drafted is simpler, clearer and more open, and we hope it will be in force already in 2000."
Thicket of directives being thinned
Businesses often complain about the tangled thicket of EU directives, dealing with which can be unduly laborious. Erkki Liikanen concedes that this is a valid complaint in some sectors. "Together with my colleague responsible for the Single Market we have been deliberating these problems. Our goal is to simplify labour legislation and lighten the burden that they now put on companies. A good deal is being done in this matter."
Brussels is crawling with lobbyists. The holder of an important portfolio interests them increasingly often, but the Commissioner simply does not have the time to meet everyone who wants to come and talk to him. "I prefer to concentrate on the people who are directly responsible for their companies' operations," he says. "Keeping in touch with the corporate world - i.e. with companies in all 15 countries - is such a big job that there is no option but to concentrate on the essential."
In recent times the business news from various parts of the world have reported an incessant wave of major mergers. Corporate and bank measures that rank high on the Nordic scale of things are familiar events also in Finland. Erkki Liikanen regards this development as not only logical in a globalising market, but also sensible. "We must only take care that competition is preserved and consumers continue to have alternatives. Although the future will bring more mergers, we must remember to ensure the conditions in which small companies can come into being. A growth substrate for enterprise on every scale must be safeguarded."
The Commissioner has found being Finnish nothing but positive. The Finnish Presidency with its major conferences further raised our country's profile. Sitting in his office in Brussels, Erkki Liikanen puts it concisely and pithily: "Finland has a good reputation here. We Finns don't waffle; we always concentrate on what matters."