Rolling out the EU’s mass immunization program will be one of Portugal’s top priorities when it takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency as the new one on Friday, more infectious strain of coronavirus spread across Europe.
Augusto Santos Silva, Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that the socialist government in Lisbon would give priority to “the full development of the European strategy of free and universal vaccination”. Persuading EU citizens that masks and other restrictive measures will remain essential for many months to come will be another challenge.
The comments came as criticism mounted in many EU countries over the slowness of mass vaccination, compared to Israel, the UK and the US.
Portugal will also seek to ensure that the EU’s € 750 billion coronavirus recovery fund turns into productive investment, alongside other programs included in the bloc. Seven-year expenditure plan of 1.8 billion euros, both approved in the last two months under the German Presidency.
“We believe that the last six months have been a time of big strategic decisions in the EU. Our responsibility is to put these decisions into practice and deliver results, ”Santos Silva said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Portugal, whose economy has been battered by the European debt crisis and pandemic, plans to promote stronger European solidarity at a “social summit” to discuss social rights and protections to be held in Porto in May.
“It is important to show that part of the democratic identity of Europe is not only to have a market economy, but an economy which also has a strong social dimension, that we are a liberal democracy which is also socially advanced, ”said Mr. Santos Silva. “It is the best antidote against populism.”
One of the most difficult challenges facing the Portuguese Presidency will be advancing the stalled negotiations on the reform of the EU migration system. It describes the asylum and migration pact, a plan by the European Commission announced in September as “perhaps the most controversial subject in the EU”.
Some member states wanted to close Europe completely to migration or only accept migrants of certain nationalities, religions or cultures, he said. “Other Member States, like Portugal, say that neither of these criteria is acceptable.” The German presidency has not been able to move the file forward, he added, but “let’s see if we can”.
He also wants to revive the momentum of the Union’s digital transition projects in the aftermath of the pandemic and see the climate law of 2050, the cornerstone of the EU’s Green Deal, approved by the European Parliament.
A legal effort by the Hungarian and Polish governments to overturn new EU rules that make access to EU funds conditional on respect for the rule of law will likely be another thorny issue.
“We have to be vigilant,” Santos Silva said. “It is not only Hungary and Poland that are creating difficulties. Forces that challenge our values are gaining influence in countries like Portugal, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Mr Santos Silva believes that Portugal has a reputation for being an “honest broker”, an advantage in tackling difficult subjects. “Our national interests coincide very closely with those of Europe. The other 26 countries know that we are not going to propose a national agenda to our presidency. “
Portugal will also focus on advancing the debate on “strategic autonomy” for the EU, with the aim of being more independent and assertive vis-à-vis powers like the United States and China. “We don’t want to find ourselves, as we did at the start of the pandemic, (…) without sufficient production capacity for such basic things as masks or drugs,” he said.
But the country is skeptical of an EU industrial policy focused on building European “champions” from the largest economies. Instead, he believes that strengthening small and medium-sized enterprises at the “heart of the European economy” is the way forward, according to Mr Santos Silva.
This means concluding more rather than fewer trade deals, provided they are “balanced”, he said. Portugal will host an EU-India summit during its presidency, largely aimed at advancing negotiations on a long-stalled free trade agreement. Brexit may have removed some of the obstacles to a deal, including differences over India’s import taxes on Scotch whiskey.
Some politicians see strengthening ties with India as a way to give the EU more leverage in trade talks with neighboring China, following the deal this week on a long-awaited deal. investment treaty with Beijing.
This deal is expected to cause friction with the new administration of US President-elect Joe Biden. The tough issues that divide the US and the EU, such as limiting large tech companies or accessing US government markets, would not change under Mr Biden, Mr Santos Silva said. But how they were treated would be.
“We can see the past four years as a parenthesis in US-EU relations. . . when the US administration came to view Europeans as adversaries rather than friends, ”he said. Under Mr. Biden, transactions would “go back to the way they were.”
Portugal also hopes the bloc can engage in a fruitful new relationship with a post-Brexit UK under the terms of their new trade deal.
Continuing EU-UK convergence on defense, policing, the fight against terrorism and other international issues will be “a hundred times more important than discussing fishing quotas”, said Mr Santos Silva.