The start of 2021 saw the Portuguese take over from Germany the steering wheel of the Council of the EU. Until the end of June, the small yet extremely beautiful (rest assured the writer is not biased) Southern European Member State, and one of the few remaining left-wing governments in the EU, will drive the agenda in the Council, the European institution that directly reflects the interests of the 27 EU national governments.
While mostly a politically neutral role, in which the Presidency is tasked with forging the all-mighty compromises that drive EU policymaking, the start of the Portuguese takeover was seen with great expectation across the EU.
In the New Year, Member States expected to begin the easing of their pandemic response measures and the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines. Across the Channel, the dreadful Brexit negotiations were over and the bloc – just like its counterpart – could now focus on their future. To top it all off, Joe Biden’s confirmation as US President promised to bring a revival of EU-US relations. The Portuguese presidency would steer the EU ship back into its scheduled itinerary, after a few turbulent months.
EU diplomats started off the new year with the charm of Portuguese diplomatic savoir-faire, as German-styled 8 am meetings were scrapped, and Member-State Delegations were met with a tasty pastel de nata before talking politics. As we mark the first 30 days into the Presidency, here’s how things are looking up for the Portuguese:
- Recovery may take longer than planned
In its Presidency Programme, the Portuguese government focussed on one thing and one thing alone: recovery. During its 6-month term, the Presidency will be focusing on coordinating Member States’ responses to the economic downfall of COVID-19, giving priority to social welfare and sustainability.
Within this setting, Portugal will push for the approval of the European Pillar of social rights, which will grant EU Citizens with equal access to the labour market, ensure fair working conditions across the 27 Member States and promote inclusion, gender equality, and social protection.
Crucially, Portugal will work on the validation of Member States’ national recovery and resilience plans, which will dictate how each EU country will use its share of the EU’s €670bn recovery fund. Agreed last December, the fund will help Member States address the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, whilst promoting the green and digital transitions.
Alas, economic and social recovery across the Member States may take longer than expected. While working to coordinate recovery at the EU level, Portugal saw its public health situation decline to a dire condition in the first weeks of January, going from a well-managed and contained first wave of COVID-19 outbreaks to becoming the country with the most confirmed cases per million inhabitants in the world, after an easing of confinement rules over the holiday period. This has pushed any prospects of easing lockdown measures well into the Summer.
- UK moves from Member State to difficult neighbour
On top of rising infections, the EU’s slow rollout of its COVID-19 vaccines has been stirring the bloc’s relations with its newest third-country neighbour, the UK. After a troubled weekend for the European Commission, which threatened to stop the movement of vaccines to the UK, including from Ireland to Northern Ireland – effectively pulling the brakes on the free movement of goods in the island – relations between the Brussels and London are not at its best. Moving without the consent of national governments, the Commission was forced to back down on its plans, part of a strategy to ensure that vaccines meant for the bloc were not being exported after AstraZeneca announced production issues would see a lot fewer vaccines being distributed among the 27 EU Member States.
After setting off alarms in London, it is now up to the Portuguese, historically the UK’s oldest ally, to manage amends with London. But room for kind words may not be there after the EU’s Ambassador to the UK, the Portuguese diplomat João Vale De Almeida, was denied the full privileges and immunities granted to Ambassadors under the Vienna Convention, a first across the EU’s 142 foreign delegations. Described as a ‘petty’ move that raised eyebrows across the bloc, Brussels postponed – indefinitely – a meeting between the UK’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, and Charles Michele, the President of the European Council.
It will now be up to the UK to make the next move, though remarkably no side has been perfect in setting the foundations for a prosperous and fruitful new friendship.
- Hope lies abroad
Despite a few tats with its closest neighbour, it is in foreign affairs that the Portuguese Presidency set out its biggest ambitions.
With the UK now a third country, the Portuguese will work to forge new relations with India, seen as a strong prospective partner for the bloc. With Indian roots himself, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa will invite the Indian PM Narendra Modi to Porto to meet with the 27 heads of state, at a time both the EU and India seek to balance their dependence on China and address Beijing’s growing influence on the global stage.
Before jumping ship, the German Presidency had worked to conclude negotiations with China on a comprehensive investment agreement by the end of 2020, a move that may negatively affect New Deli’s appetite for new European friends. The deal has been perceived as being rushed and achieved at the worst possible time, when issues like the human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have led to China’s growing bad reputation in the world stage.
Beijing too is keeping a close look at developments in Lisbon, as the Presidency will push through part of the ratification of the agreement expected to be concluded the end of the year. So far, the EU stands firm in its belief that stronger investment links with China give the EU more leverage in the international sphere, and that the country remains both a rival and an ally.
Washington is not so sure. Another priority for the Portuguese, the start of President Joe Biden’s term in office is an opportunity to re-awaken the EU’s strong ties with the United States, as both allies seek to work together to address global challenges. Member States want to use Joe Biden’s visit to Brussels to attend a NATO summit later this year as an opportunity for a first meeting with the new President. On EU leaders’ minds are not only plans to build a strategic partnership for a coordinated response to China, but also collaboration on climate change and sustainable development.
With an agenda ranging from Washington to Beijing, the Portuguese Presidency is fuelled with ambition. Though new troubles at home may steal the attention away from Brussels, the Portuguese are committed to using their remaining 5 months in the EU’s control room to make friends abroad after a year of looking inwards and raising barriers. We’ll wait to see how they get on, but this is certainly the glimpse of hope for a return to normal times that the EU so desperately needs.
The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients in the European Union, the UK and beyond. For more information on our EU work, please contact our Director of European Affairs, Viviana Spaghetti at Viviana.firstname.lastname@example.org