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Portugal’s prime minister touts alternative energy progress

Portugal’s Prime Minister José Sócrates celebrated his country’s achievements in reducing dependence on fossil fuels and developing alternative energy sources during a Low Library Rotunda address Thursday evening.

This World Leaders Forum program, titled “Energy Policy and the Portuguese New Growth Agenda,” drew a capacity crowd—part of a week in which several heads of state visited Columbia.

Sócrates focused on the “pragmatism” and “strategy” of his administration’s economic and energy policies. Sócrates, introduced by School of International and Public Affairs Dean John Coatsworth, repeatedly stressed the links between developing renewable fuels, “going green,” and strengthening Portuguese society.

Unlike some other speakers this week, Sócrates rarely mentioned his nation’s place on the European scene or described his outlook for Portuguese-U.S. relations. The prime minister was first elected to office in 2005, and won re-election in 2009, even as his Socialist Party lost its legislative majority. He could run for a third term in 2013, but has not yet declared his intentions.

“It’s possible to make structural reforms, important reforms, in a short period of time—see the situation in Portugal,” Sócrates said at the opening of his address. He went on to explain how Portugal had reduced dependency on fossil fuels during his five years in office. This “transformation” resulted in Portugal enjoying an energy trade surplus and reducing the nation’s overall deficit. Sócrates projected that by 2020, 60 percent of Portugal’s energy will be derived from local, renewable sources.

Student questioners expressed admiration for the prime minister’s commitment to sustainable development, but also had other matters on their minds. In response to an inquiry about Portugal’s approach toward Iran, Sócrates only noted that Portugal respects “international law.” Fielding a question about education, Sócrates guaranteed that a greater proportion of Portuguese young people would be able to attend college in the next few years. Sócrates also commented extensively on Portugal’s recently liberalized drug laws, saying, “We changed from an ideological policy to a pragmatic policy.”

One issue that did not factor into the address was corruption—though experts say it has been a major problem.
“Although some efforts have been made, tackling corruption has not been a major priority [for Sócrates],” said João Gama, a tax law and public finance professor at Lisbon Catholic University, currently based at New York University. “Much more can be done.”
Fiscal and economic issues remain the number one concern of many Portugal watchers. One attendee Thursday evening was left somewhat unsatisfied by the program because her questions about Portugal’s economy were not addressed.
“There are a lot of political tensions in Portugal right now, especially with respect to different budget proposals,” said Rachel Roosevelt, a part-time SIPA student. “I wanted to hear about them. I wished [Sócrates] had touched on some of his budget proposals.”
Kevin Puhlmann, GS, was simply grateful for the chance to pepper a head of state with questions. “I come out to as many World Leaders Forum events as possible,” said Puhlmann, who waited patiently to speak with Sócrates after the address. “This is a phenomenal opportunity to actually be able to ask questions verbally without any filter.”
aaron.kiersh@columbiaspectator.com

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