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Why Are Europe's CEOs So Miserable?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010 | 9:12 AM ET

They swept in like royalty (this is Brussels after all).

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, European Council president Herman van Rompuy, and later (delayed by traffic) Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme opened the World Economic Forum Europe conference in triumphant mood.

Barroso in particular was bordering on the language of a gunslinger - if you (the markets) come and have a go at the euro, we will kick your butt.

He didn't use those exact words but he could have - the message was the same, we now have a 750 billion euros stick to fend you off with.

But if the support package put smiles back on the faces of the politicians, it did little to lift the mood of the business people gathered at the WEF meeting.

The panels and presentations that are the meat of these events carried bleak titles like 'The European Union: Managing the Crisis' or 'Redesigning Europe's Competitiveness Strategy'. Given the tone of the official program, smiles may have seemed out place.

Capital is stateless and business people know that. Weary sounding CEOs fulminated about red tape, inflexible labor laws, poor skills and education, and a workforce reluctant to work.

Where, they asked, was the political will to address their complaints? Unfortunately the politicians had already left so the question hung in the air unanswered.

The European Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage
The European Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage

Don't let me leave you with the impression everyone was miserable. I spoke to the CEOs of at least one Chinese and two Indian companies who thought the mood overly pessimistic. Their companies are growing and they had come to the conference in search of new business opportunities.

Were they attracted to Europe by a strong recovery? Well no, not really. Mostly, as it turned out, it was the chance to sell to governments, or acquire companies that are struggling to survive against Asian competition.

Contact Europe: Economy

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