There is a small, fair-trade coffeeshop on the ground floor of the main building of Science Po’s Paris School of International Affairs. A student created and run initiative, it’s unassuming but warm—its wooden slats colored with graffiti about the “rebel, Zapatista” coffee that it serves, with two or three standing tables scattered in front.
Last year as a PSIA student, I caught glimpses of Enrico Letta there, usually on mid-week mornings. I mentioned it once to an Italian friend who lives in Strasbourg—the Alsatian crossroads of Europe where Letta spent a good deal of his own childhood—thinking he would get a kick out of the fact that his former Prime Minister was the new “diplomat in residence” at my school.
He wasn’t surprised. “We’re Italians,” he said with a grin, “We can’t go very long without having a coffee.”
A year later, Letta has replaced the illustrious Ghassam Salamé as the Dean of PSIA—the latest step in his own equally illustrious career. One of the youngest Italian politicians ever to reach a cabinet level post, he served as Minister of European Affairs at the end of the 1990’s, before eventually being called on to create Italy’s first grand coalition government in 2013.
As a centrist who likes to build consensus, Letta is using his perch from one of Europe’s most prestigious public policy schools to call for a new approach towards European governance. We sat down to chat about academia and the future of the Eurozone after he spoke at LSE. Unfortunately nobody supplied us with coffee.
What’s been more of an adventure, running the Italian government, or a foot into academia with the Paris School of International Affairs?
It’s two completely different jobs, I’m very happy now working with the students and Sciences Po, and in a way, working with the future. Because discussing with students means discussing about the future.
So I’m really very happy, I hope to continue with this big challenge, which is one because with students you have to change your approach, and also because we have a very international environment. When you teach European institutions to a Chinese or Vietnamese student, it is important to change your approach—nothing is to be taken for granted. It is very interesting”
Given the amount of anti-establishment sentiment among voters and the rise of anti-establishment politicians, what can elite institutions like Sciences Po and LSE do to make sure that their students aren’t in a sort of bubble of thought, and also to engage with the broader population?
The key point is the fact that we have to train our students to take a more flexible approach. Today, crises are the new normal, not a long period of stability interrupted by a crisis, today normal is crisis. We are living in a sequence of crises. That’s why I think the role of leading universities like Sciences Po and LSE is changing. It is very important not to abandon the idea of going and getting the best students wherever they are regardless of their ability to pay—we need to find the talent and the skills wherever they are.
Competence is still—even more—important, but being competent isn’t about being full of information. We have Google for that, a campus doesn’t need to be Google. The campus is for training…lessons, simulations, activities like the ones in our schools. And we have to push this idea and avoid this cleavage between ‘people’ and ‘establishment’.
You also proposed a super finance minister to accompany “Super Mario” Draghi—unjustly or justly, the EU is perceived by lots of people to be less than democratic, or not democratic enough. Is there a danger in putting in a new technocrat to manage eurozone finances without some sort of popularly elected position, like a president, to accompany it?
Exactly, we need to avoid this risk. We need to have a finance minister, a face literally accountable to the people, able to be in a democratic sequence, able to be accountable to the parliament and in my view the president of the budget committee of the national parliaments. We need to have—for the eurozone—someone able to make the euro successful for competitiveness and growth, and not just for implementing austerity, because you’re right, the reaction of the people would be negative and that would be a disaster.
We’ve also seen lots of headlines about the european union going after corporations, Facebook, Google, etc., for the amount of taxes they pay in Europe. Would an EU wide corporate income tax coupled with rebating national contributions restore some legitimacy to the EU?
It is necessary to have a European system with its own resources. This is why along with the idea for the super minister for the euro area is to have a euro area budget. Of course that budget would be for implementing positive initiatives on unemployment, on competitiveness, etc. This is why a fiscal system is necessary. This is very difficult to do at an EU-28 level.
Martin Schulz recently spoke here and criticized heads of government for making deals in Brussels that they turn around and slam back home. Do the [specific] people in power matter, or is it all about structure and domestic politics at play?
He is right, the key problem is the fact that if the European Council is the core of the European Union—they are European leaders for one day a month, the rest of the month they are national leaders responding to their national constituencies. We don’t have national leaders with general accountability. It’s a key problem and we need to change it.
And just to end, is Donald Trump an American version of Silvio Berlusconi?
[Laughs.] I don’t know, that’s a good question. I hope not for the States of course… The key issue of the people/establishment cleavage is a key issue for Europe as well as for America, and this strange electoral campaign in the US is showing that the issue is at the top level today.