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Jose Manuel Barroso
Global | Geneva

Is talk too cheap?

24 Jul 2018

How political combat and trade co-operation work together: What can we expect from José Barroso at the IRU World Congress?

Politics involves a paradoxical combination of combat and co-operation. Politicians need to be seen to be fighting for their constituents’ interests and that often means saying hard words about opponents. Yet to get the very best results, it’s important to have a working relationship with those same opponents. This is true of every level of politics, from the town hall to the United Nations. 

One person who has vast experience in this is José Manuel Barroso. He was President of the European Commission for ten tumultuous years, starting in 2004, having been Prime Minister of Portugal. He will address the first plenary session of the IRU World Congress.

So what can we expect from Mr Barroso?

Political and personal relations

There are always back channels, ways of talking to the other side. That’s true even in wartime. Information about prisoners is typically shared and as recently as 150 years ago prisoners were routinely exchanged while wars continued to rage. At the very least, there needs to be some form of conversation when it comes to creating an armistice and, eventually, peace.

Shared experiences often bring people together in surprising ways. After they had both left office, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton developed a very close relationship, almost father-son. They even discussed the possibility of Hillary running in the 2008 Presidential election, how the Bushes and Clintons would therefore be campaigning hard against each other and the importance of keeping the politics separate from the personal.

Shared experiences often bring people together in surprising ways.

It’s good to talk

It is harder to build those close relationships on the international stage, where people often have less in common and there is more at stake. But it is essential to talk, regardless of differing interests and animosities, because talking is what leads to deals, which in turn means trade. In 1954, as European co-operation was building momentum, Winston Churchill made the point that, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”. (It was actually his Defence Minister who later modified it to, “Jaw jaw is better than war war”.)

"Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war"

On an international level, personal relationships across political divides translate into countries competing with each other politically and economically, against the background of effective regulation and supervision of that trade. The only way to create that regulation and supervision is by talking and agreeing – or compromising on differences.

However, we are seeing an uncompromising increase in protectionism in many parts of the world, which can only be a barrier to trade. Instead, we need increased co-operation because there is no question that more trade leads, ultimately, to increases in standards of living. And the life-blood of any trade is actually moving people and goods, for which an effective and efficient road system is essential.

Why the Middle East?

It is no accident that the IRU World Congress will be in the Middle East: there is huge potential to increase trade in the region, especially as it sits at the heart of new trading routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. 

Building the Belt and Road network, connecting China and Europe, is a great ambition, along with the other new routes the industry is seeking to activate – such as India’s north-south corridor. But they can only be developed when there is high-level political discourse between actual or potential adversaries.

What is the best way to bring people together to create the regulation, supervision and, crucially, the security needed to build these new trade routes? There are so many complications at every level and the only way to resolve them is to talk.

At the international level, there are some very big questions. Can Qatar be brought in from the cold? What role will Iran play? What is the end-game in Syria? Is Turkey moving closer to or further from the EU? How to deal with the Israel/Palestine question? The list goes on but always comes back, ultimately, to the values and aspirations we share for our families, communities and livelihoods. What are the best ways of reaching solutions? And what are the best compromises to keep trade flowing?

In short, what needs to be done to realise the potential of transport?

What needs to be done to realise the potential of transport?

There are also a lot of questions on the operational level of course, about the quality of roads, the availability of trucks, having the right technology, and making the right linkages between different transport modes, particularly road, rail and sea. All that requires the right people, who can co-operate with competitors when necessary. 

But it can only happen when the big, political, questions have been answered.

What will we learn?

Mr Barroso has been involved at the very highest level of political and trade discussions, most notably during the particularly testing times after the 2008 crash. He had to keep the EU member states together while ensuring continuing constructive trading relationships around the world: a very difficult balancing act. 

There are plenty of parallels between the EU under Mr Barroso and the Middle East today. The Gulf Co-operation Council has a strong voice in the region and manages trade relations with third party countries. What is its role in developing transport for trade? How can the GCC, and individual countries, build working relations in difficult circumstances as, for example, Mr Barroso did with Russia? Importantly, what is the best way to handle non-conventional, and therefore unpredictable, political leaders?

Looking at history is always interesting. But what makes it crucial is taking the learnings and applying them to the present and the future. 

These are the lessons Mr Barroso will teach us.


Join the discussion

Trade and the regulatory environment are key topics that will be discussed at the IRU World Congress, which will take place in Muscat, Oman from 6-8 November.