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In conversation with MEP João Albuquerque

João Albuquerque is a prominent Member of the European Parliament from the left-wing Portuguese party, Partido Socialista. As part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), he serves as the Vice-Chair of the Delegation for relations with Brazil. Albuquerque also serves on the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, the Committee on Fisheries and as a part of the delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. In this conversation, Albuquerque talks to us about the survival of left-wing politics in Europe, the EU's role in quelling rising tensions between the US and China, and why now, more than ever, young people need to be active citizens. 

What is the role of Left-wing politics in Europe? What does the left offer the young people of Europe?


There are three things. One thing is we cannot cave into the narrative of the far-right about division, hatred.  The xenophobic and racist narrative of us vs. them. Also, in many cases, misogynistic discourse that divides us. It creates this idea that men are different and superior to women, the same way that they say Europeans are better than those from outside of Europe.


We cannot give in to this discourse. We need to talk about solidarity, and we need to talk about empathy and have a narrative of hope to try to make people understand that every human being is equal. To make clear that we must give everyone the same access and same rights.


I think we can manage to do that on a human level through specific examples. We all know people from different origins, different backgrounds and we know that there's nothing wrong with these people. After that we can win the hearts and minds of people against the hateful discourse.


This is one issue.


The second issue, which is very important, is economic governance and the economic framework of the European Union. There are 95 million people in Europe living in poverty or at the risk of poverty and social exclusion. These are figures that we cannot accept in the European Union. These numbers are a result of economic policies that have been implemented throughout Europe that have failed many ordinary citizens. They feel misrepresented or left out by policies that are being developed at the level of the European Union.


We have failed to put social Europe at the core of our concerns and haven’t developed economic policies that work for people. You see it in the development of wages and buying power. Both have shrunk throughout the years and impacted people's perception about their own way of living and the effort required to have a different life.


The third point, especially when regarding young people, is climate change and energy transition. We need to make sure that we are not building on the social and economic inequalities that already exist, and that when we present our policies for tackling climate change, we have just transition in mind. We make sure that no one is left behind and that we don't put the necessary burden of this transition on the shoulders of those that already economically suffer the most. The transition has to be just so, we need to create the financial instruments for people to make the necessary arrangements for that transition.



Is the European Union a space a just green transition for working people can be actualised? Traditionally, many on the left see the EU as bureaucracy that benefits right wing economic positions.


I absolutely subscribe to that idea. First, I understand the Commission has the political right of initiatives. I understand the institutional framework, but I disagree with it. The right of initiatives should be provided by those that are directly elected by the people.


However, in the last 40 years, - and especially the last 30, with the design of the Economic and Monetary Union and the Euro - the adoption and implementation of the Brussels Consensus together with the Washington Consensus. We have accepted neoliberal economic policies where state interventions are significantly limited, and that the independence of the European Central Bank is a God-given right. It's indisputable, so to say, and this has serious impacts.


You saw what happened in the sub-prime crisis and how austerity aggravated the economic situation for people. This was a political and ideological choice from the European Union and the dominant ruling parties at the time. They imposed measures on southern countries that had huge impacts on ordinary people.


But we also saw the European Union’s response to the pandemic. It showed us a completely different political choice. Counter-cyclical proposals have managed to leverage the Union and to speed up its recovery while at the same time preserving the social and economic conditions of people.


We cannot accept this complete separation and this idea that technocracy always works - as if economics is natural science that has laws that are completely undisputed. This can’t be the way to govern a union such as this one.



Why do you think that neoliberalism has become hegemonic?


Well, neoliberalism became the dominant, in fact the only economic doctrine. The fact that there was one economic block that was completely dominant without a counter power has led to neoliberalism’s complete domination in the Western world.


Even the movement of my political family, social democracy, in the 90s and beginning of the 2000s, took significant steps toward that direction. Because we as a social democratic family have embraced the principle of bringing on board the ideas of market capitalism and in many ways the neoliberal approach to economics.


There has been no alternative for a very long while.



Is that lack of alternative driving the resurgence in radical politics? Is it that across Europe people are looking for a way out of neoliberalism?


I think so. Unfortunately, it’s being provided by those that are the benefactors of that system.


Let's make no mistake. These populist movements from the far-right are being heavily financed by those that want neoliberalism to stay as the dominant doctrine. This is the case with the far-right party in my country Portugal. There you see that the major contributors to this party are high enterprise owners and big enterprise owners that are widely known and reputed. They are financing the party. They benefit from the status.


There is a contradiction. What is being argued for political leverage and used as a trampoline to power, is ignored when in power as they’re there to maintain the status quo, which is, I believe, the final goal of these far-right populist movements.



What do countries like Portugal and Spain have in common that means the left do well there? When at the same time across much of Europe, they've been faltering?


In Portugal and Spain, austerity and Troika left a very big mark. This was mainly because the formula that was applied in Portugal and Spain - increased taxes, reduced salaries and cuts in pensions and social benefits - obviously resulted in a loss of income for many people.


It did not solve the problems it proposed to solve, such as the reduction of the deficit and public debt. If you look at the indicators of public debt, for GDP and the deficit, the biggest reduction that we have had happened because of counter-cyclical measures that were applied after 2015.


So, there’s a very strong opposition to the politics that had such a negative impact in our society. And if you look at what has happened throughout this last eight years, you see that there was a very large increase in salaries and people’s income.


In Portugal we had a minimum wage of €505 in 2015, and now it’s €820. An increase of more than €300 in a period of eight years is a very significant increase. Moreover, a compromise in social bargaining was made with the public sector and the private sector to continue this increase - that is now interrupted because of the fall of the government - but that it was projected until 2026.


And this boosted the internal market. At the same time we managed to diversify the quality and levels of our economy, diversified our economic sector, increased exports tremendously and made it more resilient against possible shocks and crises in the future. It’s not where we want it yet, but we have started to promote re-industrialization in Europe, with the climate in mind alongside very strong investment in railways and sustainable mobility.


So, a lot of these sectors that are now at the core of discussion in Europe have been developed over the last few years in Portugal. This has had significant outcomes in people's lives. There are many issues of course, the work is never finished, and we need to continue to improve, but I believe that the results are going to speak for themselves.



What makes for a successful left-wing political campaign in Europe? We've seen a lot fail in the last few years.  


That's the million dollar question. If I had the answers I would make sure we won the elections in Portugal and at the European level. Although I do have some reflections on this.


I think that we need a lot of pedagogy and to be capable of explaining what social democracy is. A study from an Oxford professor that I read recently showed that it's not that we have been transferring our voters to other parties, but we have been losing our traditional voters due to old age. It's not a matter of transferring our voters or losing our voters to other parties, we're just losing them period.


Our voters from the 60s saw the birth of social welfare states in Europe after World War II. Young people do not understand that many of the things that they benefit from nowadays derive from taxes we pay and from the old social welfare system we have built. Those things that allow them to thrive and the social mobility that they desire. This goes from public sanitation, to hospitals, to schools, to sports facilities in our cities, public transportation. All of this exists because social democrats developed a social welfare state - together with Christian democrats to some extent - and that which allows us to try, regardless of the social economic conditions that we begin with.


So, we need to explain what the cost of losing this capacity is and not having states that make these choices.


If we don't now apply the same logic to fight climate change through the energy and digital transition that we did in the 50s and 60s after the Second World War - and by this, I mean that we need to strongly invest, publicly invest in this capacity in order not to burden families and increase the inequalities that are already in place - then what we will have is the market regulating, or not regulating itself, and thus aggravating the social economic inequalities that already exist.


If you tell people that they need to have better energy efficient housing but then you don't give them the means to, poorer people will not be able to make the necessary adjustments. Whereas, richer people could have the means and instruments to have better access to housing and be better prepared to face climate change.


We need to be better at explaining what exactly social democracy is, its importance and that it has relevance to every one of us.



How do you how go about that?


Well, I try to do it daily. I go through schools to explain that no one is an island. We live in communities and in societies that are interdependent. Our new Party leader has been very boldly putting this out there. It's a refreshing discourse as we’ve been talking not only about empathy but the idea of community.


We aren’t telling people not to have their individuality, that they shouldn’t be pushing to live life to the fullest or to match their individual expectations. To the contrary, this is absolutely what we want. We want people seeking the affirmation of their individuality but do not forget that being human is also being interdependent.


Basically, if we are interdependent and the majority of the factors in our life are completely random - because we don't choose where we are born, the colour of our skin, our physical abilities, our gender identity, none of this is by choice – we need to have a society that can actually respond on a communal level by making sure that communities are more capable of being responsible for one another and being compassionate.



Does the EU have an important role to play in this? Perhaps one that isn’t necessarily political but symbolic.


I think this is what we should be doing quite frankly. But it’s the opposite of what many parties, that are becoming dominant, are doing. The consequences of us allowing them to win the narrative are significant threats to our democratic life and to the capacity for us to live together as one community.


I’ll give you a very shocking example. Last Saturday the far-right planned to have a demonstration in the city of Lisbon, in a neighbourhood that has around 60 different nationalities in one district. It is one of the most ethnic and nationally diverse quarters of the city. They followed the legal path regarding this demonstration, the authorities were informed. The authorities perceived the demonstration to go against the law and the constitution as it violates the principles of equality. It poses a significant enough danger that they have not accepted the demonstration request.


Nonetheless, the police issued warnings for people in this quarter to stay at home to stay safe. So basically, people that are legally in my country, that have the same rights to be in my city as I do are forced to be barricaded inside their houses because people that hate them will ramble about the streets completely freely.


Is this a society we want to create? Is this a society that we want to live in where hatred dominates the streets? I don't think we can allow for these narratives to prevail.



Why has that happened?


Well, think of this. There’s a cartoon of a capitalist that has a plate full of cookies, a migrant that has no cookie and a worker that has one cookie. The capitalist points to the worker and says, “look out, the migrant is trying to steal your cookie.” But, of course, the capitalist has a plate full.


We are using migration and people coming to Europe as scapegoats for many of the issues we are facing, especially in terms of inequalities.


We are now on the verge of having the first trillionaires in the world. We are going to have two trillionaires. We need to stop for a minute to think what it means to be a trillionaire. We're not just talking about billions, we're talking trillions. What does it mean?


What does this excessive accumulation of wealth and capital mean in terms of consumption of resources, accumulation of power, complete disregard for the same laws that apply to everyone else? And the easiest way to go around these issues and not face them is to point to those that are already the most fragile members of our society and say they are guilty.


It's paradoxical though.


I was working in the parliaments for the European Year of Skills, and I have to say that I was appalled by the council's position of trying to eliminate the references to attracting foreign nationals to the European Union. We need people from outside of Europe to come to and perform many of the jobs and professions that Europeans are no longer willing to do.


We need to make sure that we are not only capable of attracting these people but also to provide them with better conditions of living to make sure that there is no social dumping. We need to make sure that there is no social conflict between those that are coming and those that are already living here.


It's a paradoxical situation where we need these people, but we are building bigger walls to forbid them from coming here.



How has Portugal's relationship with Brazil changed since Bolsonaro left office?


The leadership of Bolsonaro was a very troubling time. I have to say that some of the Bolsonaro supporters and some of the evangelical support that was behind him, are also behind the far-right party in Portugal. There's an interconnection between those movements and Trump and the capacity of the far-right to be organised and financed.


I think that we are watching a significant change in the geopolitical arena in terms of the struggle between powers. I may not always see eye to eye with all of Lula's positions regarding external affairs. I think that there were some missteps regarding Ukraine and Russia in the beginning of this term that I believe were swiftly corrected in the UN. Brazil has always managed to have a position that stood by the countries in Europe.


Regardless of that, I think that we are watching countries, with Brazil at its helm, actually want to again have a voice in the multilateral arena. This is particularly relevant when we are entering a phase of bipolar disputes between the United States and China.


To know how Brazil is going to position Itself, and other countries of this dimension, and them having a say in trying to prevent the escalation of this conflict between the US and China is going to be very important.


Considering this, Portugal was the first country that Lula visited in Europe. We have very strong ties with Brazil and Brazilians are the biggest community in Portugal from outside the country. It's very important that we keep not only the cultural but also the social and especially the economic ties that we have.


But most importantly that we manage to keep Brazil on the side of liberal democracy and adhering to the values and the principles of a multilateral order which respects international law.



What is the EU's role in mediating the relationship between the United States and China as it becomes more fractious?


Well, that is not an easy question and there’s not a short answer.


I think it's going to be fundamental. We have elections on the month of June for the European Parliament that can significantly change the composition of European institutions. But then by the end of the year we also have elections in the US.


We don't know how it’s going to play out. It keeps me awake at night sometimes to think that there is a possibility of a return to the era of Trump and all the consequences that came from it.


I believe that Europe needs to be prepared for different scenarios. For a scenario where its capacity to have an equal relationship with the United States arises, which would be the continuation of the current administration. And it must be prepared for a scenario where it no longer has influence over its ally or the capacity to dialogue with its ally if Trump returns.


It will have a significant impact on the next mandate and how everything rolls out because we will probably need to make very tough choices in any scenario. Europe needs to be prepared to have a very strong political commission that goes out of the bureaucratic and technocratic discourse and actually starts playing a geopolitical, geosynthetic, strategic role. We might need strong politicians to be able to tone down the disputes that could arise in the future.



Do you believe part of that role should be military in nature?


My realistic answer is that unfortunately we are entering a time where the military dimension might prove necessary.


But we need to be prepared to make those choices and have those debates. We need to make sure that when we are investing in defence capability that we do not move away from social Europe and for its capacity to solve the social problems of Europe.


I hope that we do not have to reach that point. I sincerely hope that we do not have to enter that phase. It is was what everybody least desires. But we don't know what will happen in November or what can come of it.



If it is a more difficult time economically and politically, is it then especially important that young people get involved in and look to educated about politics?


Absolutely. I go to a lot of schools and universities and try to start debates about what it is to be a citizen. I think for a very long time, democracy, capitalism, the improvements in our standards of living, have led us to believe that we can have a passive role in our society. We can just be consumers, voters, taxpayers.


I don't think that this is enough for us as citizens. We need to be active.


I try to start this debate with many of the young people that I meet to make sure that they understand they’re not just a passive part of society - they are also very active. They have an active voice, and they can have an active role not only as representatives but also by participating, raising their voice, demanding those elected to meet their demands, to meet their aspirations, to talk to them, to hear their problems.


Unfortunately, this is not what we generally see. But we need to fight this and

make sure that people understand the importance of being an active citizen.



Do you give similar advice to young people who want to have political careers?


So, civil society organisations are very important. We can have an engaged civil society that goes from LGBTI organisations to animal rights associations, trade unions, NGOs, human rights organisations, environmental. All of these are very important to strengthen our social tissue and make sure that we have people representing us in different areas of life who can make demands.


However, there is no other civil society organisation with the same comprehensive view as political parties. This is what political parties should be all about. Political parties need to have a comprehensive view of everything regarding our lives.


 So, come to political parties, embrace participation in political parties, understand what they are and transform them. Adapt the political parties to the way young people want to do politics. Do not resign to the idea that political parties are outdated institutions just because they aren’t as cool as you would like them to be.


Every organisation has a capacity to transform itself. So, instead of criticising, being anti-system or saying that the system is corrupt and incapable of responding to our demands, come inside the political parties. Change it from inside and adapt them to what you want and expect them to.



Are you proud to be a politician?


Yes. Almost everything that we do is political and the fact that we can choose to acknowledge that or not is a luxury and a privilege that not everybody has. This means that I don't think that there is any anything more noble than having the privilege and the opportunity to be an elected representative.


We are at a time where it is not the coolest or most charming thing to do in the world. But I'm very proud of being an elected representative and to have a role in the European Parliament. I’m proud to try to change as many things as possible, to be coherent in my views, and to represent those that have chosen to give me their trust and their vote.

Image: João Albuquerque

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