Spotlight: Jose Socrates - Domestic reformer on global stage

No European leader will be scrutinising the outcome of last week’s European Union summit with more concentration this morning than José Sócrates, Portugal’s prime minister, who takes the EU helm from Sunday.

Portugal’s six-month EU presidency marks Mr Sócrates debut on the international stage and, known for his meticulous planning and attention to detail, he is not a man to let poor preparation mar his performance.

He will be co-starring with José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, a former Portuguese prime minister and not long ago his main political opponent, in what will be an unusually prominent season for Portugal at the forefront of international affairs.

A modernising socialist in the mould of Britain’s Tony Blair, Mr Sócrates, 50, cuts an elegant figure and is described by a Lisbon fashion designer as the best-dressed politician in Portugal. He has a fondness for early morning jogging that has provided photo opportunities from Moscow’s Red Square to Copacabana beach.

Opportunities to practise statesmanship have been less frequent. He has been prime minister for little more than two years and his only other government post was environment minister. This lack of international experience has not stopped his setting ambitious goals.

“My generation has accomplished extraordinary things for Europe: peace, economic growth, the single currency, a common security system, enlargement,” he told the Financial Times in a recent interview. “But we must go further. It’s not just a question of the European economy. The world needs a better and a stronger Europe.”

He sees a new “reform” treaty to replace the ill-starred constitution as the most important internal challenge. “This is not the time to pretend the problem doesn’t exist,” he said before the summit. But he also wants to move other international issues to the top of the European agenda.

In December, he plans to host the first EU-Africa summit in seven years. “It’s difficult to understand why we have not been able to build a broad political dialogue with Africa,” he says. “There are crucial issues to discuss, including security and terrorism, and Europe cannot approach the question of migration without investing in Africa’s economic development.” He also wants to bring Europe and the Maghreb closer. “The most important issue for international political stability is the dialogue between the west and the Islamic world. It is vital for Europe to contribute to that dialogue, particularly with the moderate countries of north Africa.”

He will also push for regular summits with Brazil, a rapidly expanding economy he feels has been overlooked by the EU. He believes Portugal, which has a long history of involvement in Africa and Brazil, is particularly well positioned to strengthen European ties with these regions.

Portugal’s current standing within the EU is not an ideal platform for Mr Sócrates to grow as an international statesman. Economic growth is the lowest in Europe and, with a budget deficit in excess of 3 per cent of gross domestic product, the country has long been in breach of the growth and stability pact, the economic rules that underpin the euro.

Portugal is also among the poorest performers in terms of the Lisbon agenda, the programme to turn the EU into “the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010, which was launched during the country’s previous EU presidency in 2000.

However, Mr Sócrates, who bears little direct responsibility for these economic difficulties, has impeccable credentials as a determined reformer. In two years, he has succeeded in cutting the budget deficit from 6.8 per cent of GDP to 3.9 per cent, facing down repeated strikes by public sector workers as he implemented painful reforms.

He describes his pension reform, which, among other things, has lifted the minimum retirement age of state workers from 60 to 65, as “one of the most ambitious social security reforms to have been made in Europe, and definitely the fastest”.

Purposeful and unwavering to supporters, aggressive and obdurate to critics, Mr Sócrates, the son of an architect from a small village in northern Portugal, acknowledges his temperament is not suited to compromise.

In Portugal, where essential reforms have been repeatedly delayed or diluted over the past decade, this tenacious quality helps explain his high popularity ratings, in spite of the immediate economic cost of his government’s reforms in terms of lower wage rises, public spending cuts and the loss of privileges for many public administration workers.

Will the international limelight dazzle Mr Sócrates? Portugal’s previous EU presidencies in 1992 and 2000 were blamed for distracting prime ministers from domestic issues, which, then as now, focused on the unpopular task of disciplining public finances.

Two previous prime ministers, António Guterres, now United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mr Barroso, were lured away from the sometimes exasperating world of Portuguese politics to international roles.

But Mr Sócrateswho says he does not even think about his re-election in 2009 – a fait accompli for most Portuguese analysts – is single-minded about his domestic responsibilities. “I will stick to my plan,” he says, “and I will not let up in the pace of reform.”

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