In this interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. For this month’s interview, we spoke with João Cotrim Figueiredo, leader of ALDE member party Iniciativa Liberal in Portugal, to find out who is the political leader he admires, what he thinks about the state of liberalism in his country, how he sees the road to recovery in the post-COVID world, and more.
João Cotrim Figueiredo, with a long background in the private sector, why did you decide to enter politics?
Perhaps the question should be what took me so long! Because the truth is that I felt responsible, by omission, for Portugal’s current sorry state. The absence of economic growth, the lack of real opportunities for the younger generation and a culture of excessive reliance on the state were all things that my generation allowed to gradually become ingrained. And we did that by not paying enough attention to the degradation of public policies and discourse, by not fighting for basic economic, political and individual freedoms and by not being willing to get involved in politics where everything is, eventually, decided.
Personally, I realised that I could no longer remain idle, waiting for somebody else to step into the ring. If I felt that my country’s backwardness was due to the lack of representation of liberal ideas then I owed it to myself and to the well-being of the new generations, including my four children, to do something about it. That is why I decided to to take up an active political role.
For you, who is the political leader you most admire and why?
I had the privilege of knowing Ralf Dahrendorf personally. He was the Dean of the London School of Economics when I was a student there, and from the very first lecture, I was very impressed by his wisdom and his liberal world view. He had been a disciple of Karl Popper and shared his views about the importance of defending what he called open societies, liberal societies, from its enemies. It was a recurring theme in many of his writings and public speeches, both as an active politician and a member of parliament for FDP in Germany and later as an academic and scholar. I don’t tend to have idols but Ralf Dahrendorf comes close.
And when it comes to your career, what is the most humbling, exciting or difficult thing you have experienced?
I have been working full-time for 35 years now, so I have a lot of moments to choose from. Many experiences have been humbling or difficult, but I recall one particular occasion that was perhaps one of the most transformative ones.
Early in my career, and a few weeks into a large project that I was responsible for, it became clear that the project’s success would depend on being able to properly integrate one particular colleague into the project team. This colleague was what you might call a difficult person, neither generally liked nor respected, basically a pariah. It took whatever soft management skills I had to make him a valued team member and a crucial factor in the success of the project. But the important – and politically relevant – conclusion for me was that each individual has value and something to bring to the table provided his or her surroundings provide the right stimuli and attention. This is true for project teams and for all human groups, including societies as a whole. I think you will agree that this is a quintessentially liberal point of view.
Your party Iniciativa Liberal is relatively young. What lessons have you learned during these past three years, and what did winning the first seat in local government in October mean for your party?
Yes, Iniciativa Liberal was established relatively recently and there has been a steep learning curve. I would single out a few important lessons:
Firstly, gaining media access is initially very hard and you really need to innovate and take some risks in terms of message, tone and medium in order to gain exposure. Secondly, we discovered that social media is a good way to communicate with potential supporters, although it does not replace the need for mass media presence. Finally, we proved that some forms of crowdsourcing are effective both in terms of funding and in terms of generating ideas. But, most importantly, we learned that it is essential to align an effective political strategy with a communication strategy that is both imaginative and consistent.
Winning the first local seat last year was a historic result because it was the first time we contested regional elections in the Azores and we managed to elect our candidate, Nuno Barata, to the regional parliament at the first attempt. It bodes well for the national municipal elections taking place later this year and shows that there is a liberal alternative to the policies that have prevailed for the last 20 years. The result was also very important because it meant the end for the majority held continuously by the Socialist Party in the region for 24 years.
You have a background in economics. What do you think could be the way out for Europe of the economic crisis the COVID-19 pandemic has caused?
Our view is that the way out of this crisis will be full of new opportunities, as well as threats, that no one can precisely foresee. We therefore need a kind of ‘trial and error’ approach to business – a lot of different attempts and approaches to new businesses which means a much more dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. For this reason, most of the funds that will be made available to European countries should be earmarked towards the capitalisation of private enterprises and towards lowering taxes as a way to foster risk-taking.
It is essential to increase people’s disposable income and, in the case of companies, increase the equity for investment. In Portugal, the government is planning to do exactly the opposite: Most of the money will be used to finance public projects, which may create jobs in the short-term but underused infrastructures in the long-term. It has happened in the past, and our concern is that Portugal ends up wasting European funds again.
It is also fair to say that entrepreneurship and SMEs form a key part of Europe’s economic backbone. With your experience as a successful entrepreneur, what is your party doing to support all those that want to follow the same path?
It is not possible to fund the increasing demands of our social and welfare systems without wealth creation and without economic growth. That is why it is so important to have an economic and business environment which is free from undue obstacles that may hinder those who want to start their own business or those companies that wish to grow and innovate.
Our party’s proposal is to lower, abolish or simplify several taxes, fees and regulations. This is one of the most effective ways to foster innovation and growth, as well as retain our best talents, young or otherwise, without which we will not be able to grow the economy and maintain and improve the quality of the opportunities available for all.
Portugal took over the rotating EU Presidency at the beginning of this month. It is a difficult time, but do you think this is an opportunity for Portugal to show global leadership?
It is certainly an opportunity to do just that. While Portugal could be a leader in transparent public decisions, for instance, our expectations are low. Just recently, our government overstated the qualifications of its nominee for Portugal’s seat at the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) by providing false information in writing. In another example, our proposal to create a transparency portal for European funds to monitor the selection, allocation and use of those funds was only passed on the second reading and still received the opposing vote from the ruling Socialist Party.
Our expectations are also low when it comes to the EU’s role as a guardian of liberty and human rights. In recent months, we have insisted that the Portuguese government should use this presidency to apply pressure to improve the human rights situation in China (Uyghurs and Hong Kong), India as well as Mozambique, a Portuguese-speaking country with close historical ties to Portugal.
Your country isn’t really known for its liberalism. How is Iniciativa Liberal contributing to promote and defend the liberal and democratic values that are so much under attack these days?
The poor liberal tradition of our country lies at the root of our strategy of choosing to fight – and win – the battle of ideas first. It is useless to gain access to power only to end up applying the same policies. Therefore, our main objective in this first mandate is to gradually introduce the liberal perspective into as many important issues as possible, from the economy to the tax system, from civil liberties to international affairs, from the ethical use of power to the issue of freedom of choice within the welfare state. The result is that, after only one year, liberal ideas have made inroads in the media, among journalists and commentators, and liberalism is now frequently seen as the coherent ideological alternative to socialist or state-dominated solutions.
As our exposure grows, many younger people are beginning to show a keen interest in liberalism. Opinion polls are showing that we are growing consistently and sustainably. We are confident that this will translate to where it counts: the ballot box.
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