Teatime with Jose Manuel Barroso


Jose Manuel Barroso is the former President of the European Commission and the former Prime Minister of Portugal. Under his leadership, the Commission spearheaded a number of projects including a package to tackle climate change, the creation of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and the reform of the European Union. Now a visiting Professor at Princeton University, Barosso spoke with us about youth politics and unemployment in Europe, and the ways in which right and left movements currently spring from the same source.

Mr. Barroso, the first question we have for you is: how does it feel to be talking with young people again, after ten years of negotiation talks with senior diplomats?

It’s a very interesting experience. One of the reasons I have chosen to accept the invitation to teach at Princeton is precisely to be in touch with young people. I think it is a great stimulus for intellectual activities, to have that contact on a daily basis. And here, at this university, the students are engaging and challenging. The quality is high, and they don’t hesitate to put difficult questions forward; they are very focused on the points they want to expand. It’s really a very interesting intellectual and social environment.

Did you work on youth issues as an academic, prior to your political career?

Yes. I was already teaching in Portugal, but also in Switzerland and the United States, as well as at the Universities of Lisbon, Geneva and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. And in fact, apart from this engagement that takes most of my time at Princeton, I am also taking advantage of the different agendas in the United States and in Europe, so I will also be teaching seminars in Geneva at the University and at the Graduate Institute [of International and Development Studies], and in Lisbon at the Catholic University of Portugal.

Great, we wish you luck there. Moving on, in terms of youth, how would you describe the situation in which the European youth is in today, and what are the biggest challenges they face?

I think the European Union is slowly getting out of the most important crisis since the beginning of European integration. It was more than a financial crisis: it was also an economic, social, and a political crisis. And I think we can say – with fairness – that we have shown our resilience. Just two years ago, many people were predicting the end of the Euro, and I think this is no longer the case. Today, Europe appears globally not as a sick economy, but in fact as one that albeit relatively slow in rhythm because it is a mature economy, can grow in a sustainable way. And confidence is back. I think we are still in a situation that is a transitional one, that very important challenges remain and I would say the most important one is of course, unemployment in Europe, and especially youth unemployment. And I’m not just saying that now because I am responding to you; I said that while in office, and in fact, I promoted some initiatives to specifically tackle the issue of youth unemployment.

Sure. We will touch on youth unemployment later on as well, but we just want to go back to something you mentioned; you said that the EU is now more resilient. But do you think that that includes young people as well, or are young people somehow separate from this? Are they included in that resilience or are they in a different situation?

It’s a complex issue because, the youth – young people in Europe – are on the one side, naturally European. Different from, for instance, my generation, where many of us in the south of Europe, and later in central and Eastern Europe, had to fight to become members of the EU! It was an inspiration. Today, what has happened is that most of the young people in Europe take European integration for granted. The youth benefits from European integration; the freedom of movement, not only to travel, but also to study, and the situation is incomparably better today than it was even in the 1990s. I know that today it is very fashionable to be pessimistic, but those people who speak about the decline of Europe have lost their sense of history completely. I remember, for instance, in 1992, when I was [Portugal’s] Foreign Minister, and member of the European Council – at the time, foreign ministers participated in the council – at the time of Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Delors, [Felipe] González; a time that people tend to idealise, since there is always an idealisation of the past. At the time, Europe was not in the advantageous position it is in today. Then, we were only twelve [nations], and we could not speak on behalf of all of Europe, but today the European Union can – I think, rightly so – speak on behalf of the entire continent because we have a truly continental dimension. My point is, while it is true that to a large extent – and it is a large concern – young people feel somehow disconnected from the European Union and this is a matter that requires attention, at the same time, this generation is much more European and internationally minded than previous generations. Without comparison! If you compare, it is really quite striking how the attitudes and the ways in which people today interact with others in Europe; it is much deeper today than before.

Given what you just said, would you say that the youth in Europe today is better off and has more opportunities, let’s say, than the youth 20 or 30 years ago?

It depends what we speak of. For instance, my generation, until 1974 in Portugal – but the same applies to Spain or Greece – we could not even live in democracy until quite recently! Most other people – not just young people – lived in central or Eastern Europe and were thus living under totalitarian systems. Some of their countries were not even united systems like the Balkan countries. So I think we can say that today, generally speaking, that the feeling of belonging to Europe which young people possess today is much stronger, much deeper than before. Having said that, it is true that today, for the younger generation, there are some challenges and difficulties that sometimes are bigger than those faced by previous generations. For instance, finding that first job. Before, in my generation in Portugal, we were almost sure that if you get a good degree at University, you could find a relatively good job. Today, unfortunately, this is no longer the case in several countries, where a good education is not a sufficient guarantee of professional future, and this is a matter of great concern. That is why I spoke about the problem of youth unemployment.

Why do you think young people especially are suffering so much from the current crisis?

Because they are dealing with mistakes made by previous generations. Namely, the high levels of debt that have accumulated, and the lack of economic reforms that could give Europe more sustainable growth. Apart from these, there are real problems we have felt in the financial sector that created uncertainty and that had had an extremely negative impact on prospects for growth in Europe, and not only in Europe because the financial crisis was indeed not only in Europe. It was a set of factors that brought Europe to a difficult economic situation that of course diminishes the potential growth of Europe today. And that’s why there are some difficulties for the younger generation in some of our countries when they try to look for their first jobs. And also, I think the impact of the financial crisis is still being felt in our economies.

Would you say that the focus on economic growth to provide security for future generations of youth is appropriate?

I think it’s one of the important elements, not everything is about the economy but the economy is very important. There are other issues, and I personally believe that cultural opportunities that our societies can offer are particularly important as well. I’ve said several times that in terms of the hierarchy of values, culture and science come before economy because there are more permanent values: they have to do with the personal fulfilment of individual human beings – and so I don’t think that the economy should be the Alpha and Omega of our societies. But it’s also true that without a minimum of proper economic conditions, you cannot create the conditions for people to fulfil themselves and liberate their potential. So I think the issue at stake is broader than an economic one. And that there are things that have to do with the general values of societies, – like for example, the society that looks out for the more vulnerable members in that society – that defines for me the civilising element in a society. But there are also important issues of an existential nature to which the young people of Europe are especially committed – climate change, climate protection, the global environment – which tells us that not everything is of an economic nature. But of course, the economic situation remains a very urgent concern.  

It’s often said that the youth suffers from democratic or political fatigue, however, over the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in nationalism and anti-EU sentiments among young people; what would you tell young people about where they should direct their grievances, also with respect to austerity?

What I ask young and not-so-young alike to do, is to use their intelligence and their critical capacity to make themselves aware of the situation, and to think about the problems, having in mind the historic and geo-economic and geo-political context.

Europe, with all its problems, is one of the most advanced and decent societies in the world, and I believe our model which qualifies as the social market economy, is indeed something we should be proud of; combining freedom and democracy, open society with open economies, at the same time we are for mechanisms of cohesion for example, a welfare state. I don’t think we should follow others, and I frankly disagree completely with those who suggest its better not to have democracy if you want to grow faster, or you should forget about social commitments if you want to remain competitive. We have a system which is very challenging, but it is also the one that has helped shape some of the most decent societies on earth; socieities which have principles of non-discrimination between men and women, where there is – generally speaking – a high level of protection for the citizens, for the workers, for consumers, and also protection of the environment. So we should be proud of it. If you compare Europe to any other part of the world, you’ll find we’re among the first, and in many cases with great advantages compared to others. To those who are now more pessimistic about Europe (favouring the glorious past) it’s quite obvious that we’re in a much better position today than Europeans were 20, 50 or even 60 years ago. From child mortality rates, to life expectancy, to freedoms of movement – Europe today is much better than the past, not to speak of the tragedies of war that Europe has known for so many centuries – at least in Western Europe there has been no war recently, though there was some years ago in the Balkans. I ask young people to be critical and to develop some refined criteria in the analysis. I ask young people to put their energies into it and to solve the problems for the better. There are many problems, but solving these problems does not mean to hide, to become economically protectionist, or to pretend that globalisation is not there; but to embrace the changing world from science and technology to communications. There are risks and challenges, but there are possibilities to overcome these risks and challenges.    

Of course, in times of social and economic anxieties, it’s natural – true but unfortunate – that some extremist parties and populist forces have in effect a common agenda from the extreme right to the extreme left that is against openness, against globalisation, against Europe, against foreigners. And this is not exclusively happening in Europe; this happens all over the world, sometimes in the most radical and sometimes even terroristic way, where people reject that openness we have in our society. And of course in Europe we have seen these developments increase their inputs. In spite of that, I really do believe there are enough forces in Europe to resist and promote debate, and I’ve said the following several times, even when I was in office, which I repeat now: the mainstream political parties should leave their comfort zones. They should not take Europe for granted, they should explain that people need to come to the political debate, and that is where there is a deficit. There is a deficit in the ownership of the European project. Many people take it for granted and don’t mobilise and explain what is at stake with Europe today, and others in fact are giving resources to those forces in the European Union. So my answer is lets have that debate and let’s make the case for Europe, and let’s make it clear that Europe is an open project, a permanent project and not something simply achieved.

In Spain especially, there is a movement called Podemos, which embraces a lot of young people who are not at all anti-European, yet who have critical views of the “Brussels-Bubble” or European institutions. Do you think it is a good idea for young people to enter into these movements and establish a dialogue on the set-up of the EU without questioning the value of it – to perhaps find an alternative way that the EU might be able to develop over the next few decades? Do you think this is a dialogue we can be happy about, or are you concerned about this as a kind of backlash?

It’s a difficult issue. The answer unfortunately cannot be very short, as the issues are very complex and we should try to avoid oversimplification – precisely one of the hallmarks of populism is its recourse to simplistic solutions for complex issues which try to manipulate the populace.

First of all, I’m a true democrat and I believe in a pluralistic society, and so those movements which have appeared now which are more critical of the establishment not only have a right to do it – I very much respect that – but we should also look at what is behind this criticism, to try to integrate or at least consider their demands; demands for greater equality and fighting against social injustice, this is something that some of those movements bring and we should try to embrace those beliefs. Having said that, I don’t agree with most of the messages of those movements. Nationalistic sentiment pervades both the tone and the message of parties from both the extreme left and the extreme right, and this is counter-productive to the European project: Podemos, Syriza, Front Nationale, among others are using the same tactic and we should reject this. For instance, concerning Podemos, I’ve seen the leader make xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic statements; I’ve heard the leader at a Podemos meeting attack Germany as a country.   And the same time we should not accept German prejudices against people of the South. Nor can we accept the prejudices of Southern countries against Germany and Northern countries. The media is also culpable of this; a student of mine presented the covers of German and Greek newspapers, and while the contrast was obvious, the nationalism was shocking. Of course this makes for a more exciting confrontation, but it’s unacceptable; for instance, in Portugal, people work the most number of hours anywhere in Europe. And yet, across the continent and even within Portugal, there is a stereotype that Germans are the not only the hardest working, but that the only solutions to Europe’s problems will come from Germans. But since you are also the media so you can contribute to a positive debate, no?

We cannot accept nationalist discourses in Europe. We’ve seen in Europe that nationalistic discourse has brought Europe to two world wars; in fact those two wars started as European wars. So I believe while some of those movements express legitimate demands for large parts of Europe, I believe the solutions they propose are not the right ones.

Having said that, we should not reject outright the signals they are sending. I believe that particularly the so-called mainstream parties from the centre left and right should be self-critical: what have they not done properly? Why is there such a large disconnect between them and civil society – not just in social terms, but also in communication terms and in cultural terms – and we should continue the debate, and I trust that the debate will provide the solution. I am confident in the capacities of Europeans in general to avoid extremes and to be constructive, and make improvements to the current situation.