Evasive Sócrates discusses EU agenda

news: Evasive Sócrates discusses EU agenda

MODERNISATION AND economic reform must be placed sharply at the centre of both European Union and Portuguese policy, argued Prime Minister José Sócrates last week.

Addressing 300 top Portuguese and American businessmen at a luncheon hosted by the American Club of Lisbon, the Socialist Party (PS) premier avoided detailed discussion on how his government intended to deal with Portugal’s current economic crisis and failed to answer vital questions concerning taxes, which horse he was backing in the forthcoming presidential race, agricultural policy and the wisdom of costly investment projects. Instead, he gave a rather objective and outward looking yet stale heard-it-all-before analysis on the problems confronting the European Union and its future direction.

“Impersonal” Europe

He began by stating that Europe had lost its appeal, popularity and direction, compared to the way it was seen 10 years ago. He said there was a feeling of a democratic deficit in Europe, which had made it appear cold, distant and impersonal – one that was not responding to the problems of its peoples and living up to its expectations. “The European bureaucratic machine is losing impetus and a sense of clarity in its objectives,” he said.

The Prime Minister also talked about a “lack of leadership in Brussels”, while the “motor of progress and change seems not so able or available to push forward greater economic, political and social integration”.

He went on to develop this by stating that the EU project in the eyes of its citizens “was failing to live up to their expectations”. “Europe is looking for its own highway and is a little lost – we cannot deny that,” he added. However, he too dismissed, like political commentator Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the notion that we should somehow retract and stop the political, social and economic train, allowing some to get off or others to change the pace. “In Europe, we (the politicians) may have committed mistakes, but the engine, though slower, hasn’t stopped.” He also warned that holding referendums during periods of economic crisis was dangerous because they muddied issues between national and European problems.

Priorities for EU agenda

In the Prime Minister’s view, economics must be put at the centre of EU concerns and at the top of its agenda. The priority must be to arrive at an agreed consensus on the position of the budget and the Budget Stability Pact, and he trusted that this consensus would be reached under the UK Presidency, which began at the start of this month. “Mr Tony Blair wants Europe to reach an agreement and we really need to find an agreement,” he said.

He briefly turned to agricultural policy, saying that the amount spent on subsidising EU producers and farmers had been significantly reduced in the last few years, while agreeing there was still further to go.

He said that Europe’s challenge was to foster economic growth, competitiveness and instil public confidence, while banishing the current feeling of inadequacy and inferiority that was permeating many countries. “We must have the courage to carry out the indisputable changes that are necessary with greater economic stimulation and more dynamism at a political and institutional level,” he added.

Turning to terrorism he talked about “sharing common objectives to fight common threats while sharing ideas and intelligence”.

Modern Portugal

At the Portuguese level, he underlined that his government was committed to following a path of modernisation, making both the State institutions and bureaucracy more efficient, just and able to integrate in the global economy. “These reforms set an agenda that simply cannot wait. Institutions, companies, families and individuals have to change and be more innovative,” he stressed and added that new technology and improved qualifications and teaching methods lay at the centre of this change. In this, he placed the importance of English and Mathematics in schools as the main focus for his government’s competitiveness drive.

Good investment climate

He reaffirmed his commitment to controlling public spending and keeping the country’s spending to within the three per cent laid down by the EU. “There is no worse enemy of the state than chaotic and disorganised public finances, which are pivotal to creating a good investment climate.

He trumpeted the new Employment Code struck between employers, trade unions and the government, which would fundamentally help investment and improve productivity. José Socrates also said the annual Microsoft meeting in Lisbon next January shows international confidence in Portugal at a high technological level. The Prime Minster finished by saying that the EU is central for Portugal: “It’s the most important and critical institution of our times.” Chris Graeme