From the Winter Issue “Europe Under Fire”
A Conversation with Mário Soares
For nearly two decades, Mário Soares led Portugal, first as prime minister, then as president. His reign, as leader of the Socialist Party, which he founded, followed 36 years of dictatorship by Antonio Salazar, the Iberian counterpart to the fascist leader of neighboring Spain, Francisco Franco. Salazar and his feared secret police successively arrested, imprisoned, and exiled the Socialist leader to the island of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. But, following the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, Soares returned from exile and won Portugal’s first truly free elections, bringing a new breath of freedom and freshness to this nation of remarkable beauty and accomplishments. He was elected president of the republic one year after Portugal, together with Spain, joined the European Union on June 12, 1985, laying the groundwork for his country to become one of the inaugural nations to adopt the euro as its common currency when it was first established in 1999. Today, nearing 90 years old, but in vigorous health, Mário Soares presides over his eponymous foundation whose seat lies within the shadow cast by the Parliament building on one of Lisbon’s seven hills. Long a member of the European Parliament and one of the continent’s true elder statesmen, still a fervent socialist as the continent begins to turn toward the right and with a unique perspective on the role of small powers in a world dominated by giants, accompanied by his interpreter and chief of staff, he met in his office in Lisbon recently with World Policy Journal editor & publisher David A. Andelman for a conversation.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: President Soares, let’s begin by exploring where you think Europe is heading these days. Your perspective goes back to the earliest days of the European Union, from the creation of the euro to the point where today it seems to be in a meltdown. So my question is, can Europe be saved?
MÁRIO SOARES: Europe can be saved, but I think that the situation is very dangerous. The person who should help Europe come through is [German chancellor] Mrs. [Angela] Merkel. Hopefully, nowadays, it is recognized that the politics defended by Mrs. Merkel are not correct and even the Germans are not convinced. Germany and the Germans are now entering into an economic situation that is not very good. They are facing deep disruptions. Let me explain why. Mrs. Merkel imposed austerity on everyone. And that policy of austerity has all but liquidated most European countries, and notoriously weakened the most important economy, Germany itself.
WPJ: Germany cannot save every country in Europe. That’s too much of a burden for any country, is it not?
SOARES: No, Germany cannot save most European countries. But Germany is in a very difficult situation, perhaps in many respects more difficult than other European countries. There are some European countries emerging from this crisis and becoming even better off than before, Italy, for instance. In a certain way, also, France.
WPJ: Not many in France might agree? Some 87 percent of its people think it is in terrible condition. A French couple we just met on the street here in Lisbon outside your office confessed they’d just bought an apartment in Portugal because they could not face the situation in France.
SOARES: I agree, but I think it is because Portugal has developed a fiscal policy to attract those people. That’s one of the reasons they want to come here. The prime minister in Portugal is in a very difficult situation these days. He really has no choice.
WPJ: Do you think a united Europe is worth saving at this point? And what about the euro?
SOARES: I believe deeply in Europe and in the euro. The European Union can be saved [and] have a great future, but it is necessary to be helped by President Obama and the United States.
WPJ: The European Union has a larger GDP than the United States. Should it not be able to help the United States, rather than the other way around?
SOARES: I don’t agree that the economy in Europe is stronger than that of the United States, which is growing faster than Europe due to a development-oriented policy. Europe is not growing, so Europe needs the support of the United States. But to ensure future prosperity, Europe further needs to adopt new economic and financial policies because the ones previously implemented have proven to be failures.
WPJ: One of the problems in Europe that the United States cannot help solve is the division within Europe between north and south, east and west. Without resolving this, it would be as though New York and Massachusetts were fighting against Florida and Louisiana.
SOARES: I agree with you. It is what is happening now in the European Parliament, and I am trying to convince people of the necessity to battle this. Destroying Europe in a certain way are the policies of Merkel—and her concept of the European Union. The policies of Mrs. Merkel and Germany are not accepted by the other European countries.
WPJ: The politics may not be, but her money is accepted. It bailed out Greece. It bailed out Italy and Spain, even Portugal.
SOARES: Not entirely. Mrs. Merkel decided these policies should be imposed on these countries. And the policies that have emerged from this crisis so far didn’t help these countries. Moreover, Germany knew that this was the case in Greece, the first such country. Take Sweden. It is necessary to understand the signs of the recent victory of Social Democrats in Sweden. It is a vote against the support the Conservative Party there gave to Mrs. Merkel. I can suggest to you the example of Italy, but also the example of Spain. We here in Portugal have just concluded a process to find a new leader for the Socialist Party. This leader is expected to be the new prime minister according to polls. The Socialists are rising up again, brought about by the failure of Mrs. Merkel’s policies.
WPJ: But in much of Europe, France in particular, the right wing has won more supporters than it has had in years?
SOARES: I don’t agree. [French conservative leader] Marine Le Pen has perhaps more votes but no real power. It’s true that I don’t recognize any great accomplishments by [French Socialist] President Hollande. If things go on like this, I would not be surprised if something unexpected happens in France, but not in the sense of the resurgence of the right wing, but rather a new French revolution.
WPJ: Take Spain. It has a 25 percent unemployment rate; among young people it’s closer to 50 percent. Germany and the rest of Europe don’t seem to be helping that at all. Indeed, it’s just getting worse.
SOARES: At the present moment, much is in flux in Europe at large. I have been in permanent contact with the European Parliament and even today I was talking with a Portuguese MP who believes that everything is changing in the European Parliament as well.
WPJ: In what way?
SOARES: In the sense of creating a resurgence of real values that will lead Europe forward, particularly following the path of socialist [ideas]. The outgoing President of the European Commission [José Manuel Barroso, former center-right Prime Minister of Portugal] has done a lot of bad things, acting like Britain’s Tony Blair, not acting as a good president of the European Union. [Barroso’s incoming successor Jean- Claude] Juncker is a Christian Democrat, and as you know, the Christian Democrats that almost went out of existence, are now coming up again.
WPJ: Is this not the antithesis of all you have represented and continue to represent in Portugal and in Europe?
SOARES: In the beginning, some years ago, when the times were good in Europe, Christian Democrats and Socialists were coexisting. Suddenly, when the Christian Democrats disappeared, we began hearing only talk about the economy, economy, economy, and now everything has turned down. But the liberals in power are not having much success. I am convinced that globalization and regulations of the financial system commanded by American banks and bankers have caused many of the problems of Europe today. Those responsible for our troubles today are those who command the markets, the faces behind the markets, concerned only about their own economic interests and those of the markets they control.
WPJ: Spoken like a good socialist.
SOARES: I attribute much of the suffering existing nowadays in the world to a lot of magnates who are looking for more profits exploiting oil, gas, and minerals, while at the same time are destroying the oceans and creating chaos because they seem to be mostly concerned with taking profits from the world economy.
WPJ: I understand that you do not like Merkel and the whole system over which she presides, whose lineage you could trace back to the periods of the First or Second World War, even before, with the small countries that were victimized by Germany.
SOARES: I think Mrs. Merkel could be a new kind of German. And it is true I do not like Mrs. Merkel. But I do not believe Germany is all Mrs. Merkel. Even if Mrs. Merkel did not have an absolute majority in Germany, with the help of the Social Democrats, she would be able to continue the same politics. In the time Hitler rose to power, it was because the Christian Democrats and Socialists were not standing together; they were fighting one against the other. Of course, no one wishes to see it repeated in Europe any more. And we don’t have the right wing in power presently. But the presence of the right wing in the European Parliament is a fact; it is a reality. They have been elected.
WPJ: There seem to be so many conflicts, even within Europe these days. How do we stop such wars, economic wars, between European countries?
SOARES: We are now facing a difficult period because there are many countries at war with each other, and we don’t know any other recent period in which that was happening. It is very difficult to explain that.
Not only are there wars between European countries, but countries from the West are in conflict with Arabs in the Middle East. It is not easy to sort through any of this. Everybody is uncertain, uncomfortable. Russia is not comfortable. Putin is not comfortable. Mrs. Merkel would like to reach an agreement with Mr. Putin, but she is not the only voice in Europe. Arabs are fighting each other, killing those who are not [their brand of] Arabs. We are living in a period of many conflicts. There are emerging conflicts in China, and it is urgent to fight desperately for peace. And you need to have leaders that agree on such needs. Considering this, I am not especially happy with your President Obama.
WPJ: But aren’t you both, essentially at least, ideologically socialists?
SOARES: He has been weakening in the past years. He should have been more of an activist, taken more initiatives. There were conditions when he might have done so. Moreover, even though I am not religious, we cannot neglect the importance of the new Pope these days and his effort to encourage global peace.
WPJ: Portugal once shared domination of the world, dividing it with Spain, which Pope Alexander VI was needed to resolve back in 1494. Today you are the only country in Europe on a different time zone, a small sliver divided from the rest of the continent. So what is the role of Portugal in today’s Europe?
SOARES: We are on Greenwich meridian, the same as Britain. Portugal is a small country, but you cannot forget that when it was a great power, it had several colonies, including Brazil, which gained independence in 1822. Portugal, under my rule, was able to give independence to the African colonies we had possessed until 1974. You should not forget that Portugal had a great influence and a language that was common to all of those former colonies. This is a very important fact. Those countries that were once Portuguese colonies and territories, from East Timor to Brazil, are Portuguese-speaking nations.
WPJ: There is no doubt that Portugal has had and continues to have an enormous cultural influence in the world. But within Europe, you are the only country that speaks Portuguese. You are a small country with many problems, especially economic, and there are many other such small countries that are often forgotten within Europe. Portugal could be a model for those. So what do you see as the role of Portugal, as one of the smaller nations in a united Europe so dominated by large powers?
SOARES: The most important role Portugal could have in Europe is to make a triangle, uniting with Brazil and Angola. All countries that were our former colonies speak Portuguese. So if Portugal was able to bring together the most important countries that are speaking Portuguese, that could give us a special role in Europe. My personal idea is that it would be good for Portugal if Brazil, Portugal, and Angola would have a special concern for the South Atlantic as well.
WPJ: What do you expect from the rest of Europe then?
SOARES: For five years, I served as a deputy in the European Parliament. And all the debates I took part in, I always spoke in Portuguese, and everyone respected the Portuguese point of view. So we should continue to be respected in the future.
WPJ: Yes, but what does Portugal get out of that? Would most Portuguese, if asked now, as Britons may be asked in the next couple of years, vote to stay in the European Union?
SOARES: Naturally, absolutely. We are Europeans. We, Portuguese, have always been Europeans, and we are absolutely, definitively Portuguese.
WPJ: But what do you gain from remaining a part of Europe?
SOARES: We have interests that are also in the interest of bigger countries. I have never had a complex about being the leader of a smaller country. To help you understand this point of view, suppose that during the recent referendum in Scotland they would have achieved independence. If England lost Scotland, what would it do? The relevant issue here is the existence of the British Commonwealth. For us, in our Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP), the main country is Brazil. We are all part of this community.
WPJ: So why not split off from Europe and create a real Portuguese Commonwealth?
SOARES: Portugal is a full member of the CPLP. But we always have been Europeans and while our destiny may be connected with our former colonies, we are still Europeans. We became a country five centuries before Spain. Historically, we already were Portugal before Germany even existed. None of that can be taken away from us.
WPJ: So these small European countries, are they better off as part of Europe?
SOARES: Even as a small country, we belong to Europe. At the same time, we have our association with other Portuguese-speaking countries, as in the case of the Commonwealth. We are not making a choice between one or the other. We are always Europeans. We have always been a respected country. When I travel all over the world, I always speak in Portuguese. And there is great respect for Portugal because we have a very old history. It was Portugal that discovered Japan and China, for instance. It is not common for such a small country to have such an important role in history. I would like to tell you a story. After our April 25 [1974 revolution], [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger told me that I risked to be the Portuguese Kerensky and that I should go to the United States because if I remained here I would probably be killed. I never paid much attention to that. But Kissinger at a certain point convinced himself that I would be killed by communists because they would like to install a communist regime here. For them, Portugal would then become the Cuba of Europe. Yet I am still here. Portugal will always solve very well its own problems.
WPJ: Many Western territories are concerned about home-grown terrorists. Do have such fears in Portugal now?
SOARES: There is a concern in Portugal, but we are doing nothing regarding that, at least nothing we know of. If the government is doing anything about that, they are doing it very silently, but there is no great fear about that here. Obviously, I would not like to have terrorist attacks in Portugal. In Spain there have been cases of terrorist attacks, but so far we haven’t suffered from one.
WPJ: If you had 10 minutes with President Obama or Ban Ki-moon, what would you tell them they need to do?
SOARES: Obviously I would have liked to meet President Obama. I even wrote a letter to President Obama in 2008, which was given to the Portuguese ambassador, though I suspect that it was never delivered because there was never a response. But being an admirer of President Obama, I kept following his writing and speaking, and I even expressed my disappointment when I did not agree with all his actions, as stated in an open letter titled “Three Requests for President Obama,” which I published in the Foreign Press in 2010.
WPJ: Thank you, Mr. President.
[Cartoon courtesy of Jeff Danziger]