Laudatio for Bruno Maçães
Ranald MacDonald Prize
Amsterdam, 11 October 2018
Caroline de Gruyter
I can still remember the first time I met Bruno Maçães. It was either in a hotel on the Adriatic coast, or in a five star resort in the Algarve overlooking the white dunes in the Ria Formosa nature reserve.
Before you start having funny thoughts, I must add that there were several other people present: politicians, diplomats, and civil servants from all the corners of Europe, in retreat for a long weekend to discuss Europe. We ate, we swam, we made boat trips and excursions, and in between we were locked up for some Chatham House style debating sessions on the euro or on European foreign policy in a heavily air-conditioned room. Because it was Chatham House I cannot reveal who was the man on my right-hand side whom I had just asked: who is this young guy over there, being contraire all the time? His answer was: he’s a junior Europe minister in Portugal; he’s too smart for his own good; and so he plays the arch-conservative just to irritate the hell out of us.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what Bruno Maçães was VERY good at: irritating the hell out of everybody. Merkel’s envoy, Hollande’s envoy, Draghi’s envoy, NRC Handelsblad’s envoy – we were all put in our place by this restless Mr. Know-It-All. I remember thinking, he could be British. In any meeting about Europe the British have been, for years, the only ones who are able to make us all look in the mirror. And to ask the questions that everybody else avoids asking. The British adore that role. In fact, they love it so much that they cannot get out of that role anymore. This is my explanation for Brexit: even inside, they act like outsiders. In fact, they became that mirror over the years.
In those meetings in Croatia and Portugal where Bruno and I met a few times he played exactly that role: challenging everything conventional and even non-conventional. His interventions were brilliant, without exception. Portugal is usually very cooperative in all matters European. It was as if Bruno was there showing us that we should never take that for granted because the Portuguese – or at least some of them – are very fond of deep and difficult thinking, too. For instance, he would say things like: “We have to introduce politics into our policies”, having some ambassadors looking at each other across the table, lifting their eyebrows: “Very smart.” My neighbour mumbled: “What on earth is he talking about?”
Anyway, ladies ands gentlemen,
What I am up to here, is to paint a small picture, a miniature, of the man sitting on the first row. He is not a minister anymore. He’s doing something much, much nicer now: he travels, watches, talks, and writes. In a time of big changes, where actually everything is challenged on a permanent basis, Bruno Maçães is really in his element. Just like in his previous life as a minister, he likes to poke us a little. The difference is that the minister had to do it with a straight face. Now the reporter can do it laughing out loud. He can go much further, as a free man, without the constraints of ministerial protocol. In my view all this suits him better. He’s enjoying himself. He’s tweeting like mad. Posting all kinds of politically incorrect stuff. Giving interviews. Travelling all over the globe. Meeting many more interesting people than he could ever meet as a minister. Well done.
This is probably the reason why Bruno’s first book, the book that earned him the Ranald MacDonald Award, has had such a good reception all over the world. Instead of lecturing other ministers twice as old and half as smart as he is, he has set out to travel the world and write it all down in a wonderful reportage, in the grand old tradition of the travel book. This is far more useful for everybody, in my view. There are many travel books nowadays. But what one often misses is an idea. In Bruno’s case there is an idea. And this idea travels with him, all the way. It is like a stone in his pocket. It is never far. Stendhal once said that a good novel is like “a mirror walking on the main road”. There is the mirror again! Exactly that applies to Bruno’s book, too – even if it isn’t a novel.
The good thing is that The Dawn of Eurasia is not just challenging our way of thinking about almost everything. But in a world which is fracturing and has bits and pieces coming off and realigning in new ways, he is also taking us by the hand. This is important. Many people feel lost nowadays. Just like my old grandmother who chased us grandchildren out of the kitchen on Sunday afternoons at one o’clock sharp, who would sit at the table, turn on the big bakelite radio and listen to The Netherland’s foremost commentator’s view of the world, taking it in word for word – just in the same way, like that commentator making people listen, this book shows us what time does when it suddenly decides to fly fast. It shows us how the world is changing and how this will affect us.
It is difficult not to follow him. He makes his journey full of curiosity, humour and energy. The mirror stays firmly on the main road. This allows the writer to stray. To make inroads here and there. He sips prosecco with fashion designers in the Caucasus, visits a huge Chinese market with 100.000 stalls. He snaps pictures of empty cities, smokey teahouses, snowy mountains and, of course, this cute fashion designer and her friends. You can hear him laughing sometimes. And although I don’t know Bruno’s personal details, somehow I wasn’t surprised when he announced on Twitter, recently, that he had gotten married to a Turkish feminist. Some people have a life before they become a minister. Others get it afterwards. Considering the average age creeping up, I have no doubt that Bruno got the better deal.
But he always comes back to the main road again. Where the mirror is. Then he writes beautiful, clear sentences like: “Politics in Russia can be precisely defined as the management of chaos.” Spot on!
But since my field of interest is Europe, my favorite passage is perhaps this one: “Europeans should be wary of falling into the old trap of thinking that history is on their side, like the Ottomans when they took their motto of the ‘eternally lasting state’ too literally, and failed to recognize the rise of modern European society with its superior dynamism.”
Luckily for me, Bruno travels the world as a European. By going there, he is trying to wake us up. Because Europe, once the center of the world – ask the Portuguese! – Europe is tired. Many predict its demise. I agree with Bruno that this is probably not what will happen. What will happen is that it will gradually become redundant. Peter out. The EU will be the EU, the rules and principles will remain in place – but there is a new game in town and you can hear the rumblings of it already.
They are those of an old culture that after a long period of decay has become very energetic. China knows where it wants to go. It wants to go there fast. The Belt & Road project is arriving in Europe. I was told that during the last 16+1 summit in Sofia, this summer, the 16 Eastern and Central European heads of state were not sitting at a big round table with the Chinese president and taking decisions – the format we have for European Council meetings. No, nothing of the sort. The Chinese president held court in his hotel suite. The Europeans each had half an hour to pitch one or two projects, for the Chinese to decide upon. Then they were dismissed. Next, please. That’s what summits with the Chinese look like.
I have spent the last 14 summers near the pretty old town of Ponte de Lima. It’s the oldest town in Portugal, or so it is said. Every year there’s a new Chinese shop. Cheaper. Shabbier. Bigger. They started at the outskirts, now moving deeper into the historic center. At the biweekly market they are outcompeting the gypsies who sell bathing suits for 3 euros. The next century will be Asian, you often hear. You can feel this in Ponte de Lima. And Bruno Maçães follows the trail all the way back from Ponte de Lima to a flag factury on the other side of the world. Where do these Chinese shops come from? And where does all this lead us?
In the Chinese flag factury they knew that Trump was going to win before anyone else did. They had so many orders for Trump flags, Bruno writes, and so few for Hillary flags. This is reporting at its best. It is connecting – Ranald MacDonald style – the Chinese stores in Ponte de Lima with Chinese power coming all the way through Eurasia. And connecting this again with the Americans, shifting away from the West and western business as usual.
“The European political order has developed in a protected ecosystem,” Bruno tells us. It has reached a high stage of sophistication. Too high? Probably. The ecosystem now unravels. Europe is exposed. She is unflexible. She has to float, like Bruno himself (in a way) does now – but at present she cannot. All this is “so complex that the best Europeans can hope for, is that the rest of the world leaves them alone,” he writes.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me wrap up now. I have understood that Bruno plans to write 15 more books in the coming 15 years. If those books contain this kind of thinking and writing, too, I will probably buy them all.
You have come a long way, Bruno, from the slightly nerdish minister I met in Dubrovnik and Faro expressing himself by being contraire. Being a journalist and writer suits you much better. Guess what? I’ve become a fan.