For the Portuguese Prime Minister, the socialist António Costa, it will not be easy to wear the shoes of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only because she has a smaller foot (she wears 40) but because she leaves the presidency of the European Council at a very complex time, with the pandemic out of control and the recovery plan to be executed.
The last time Portugal assumed the presidency of the EU, the situation was also very complicated. It was during the second half of 2007. The Union came from a period of extreme wear and tear, with some countries wanting to advance towards greater political integration while others were satisfied with the internal market and did not want to go further. The compromise between these two ways of understanding Europe was signed on October 19 of that year in the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, the 16th century building that symbolizes the time of the great Portuguese explorers. The Lisbon treaty is the closest thing to a Constitution that the EU has and the entire legislative building rests on it.
The EU intends to agree on the social rights of citizens so that no one is left behind
The challenge now facing Portuguese diplomacy is similar. It has to consolidate the EU in a critical year, not only because of the covid and its consequences but also because of Brexit and the destruction that the presidency of Donald Trump has caused in transatlantic relations.
Portugal will oversee the deployment of the € 750 billion recovery plan. It will not be easy. Each of the 27 partners must submit a reform program to access the money. Brussels must approve it and supervise its execution. There may be technical and political vetoes, which Lisbon will have to negotiate to adapt the plans of each country to what is established in the recovery pact.
Costa knows that Poland, Hungary can cause problems. The aid is conditional on respecting the rule of law and both countries have open penalties for violating it.
The migration bone
Few problems are as chronic and corrosive in the EU as migration. Since last September, the Commission has ready an action program to admit migrants, asylees and refugees on the principle of solidarity. Each country has a quota and whoever does not want immigrants will have to pay to sustain the system. This is a highly contentious issue that will demand the best of Portuguese diplomacy. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic do not agree because they do not want more foreigners, despite the fact that their populations are also aging as in the rest of Europe. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations also criticize the plan because it does not solve the problem of migrants trapped in the Middle East and Africa. The EU received 1.8 million undocumented migrants in 2015, but only 50,000 last year. The situation today is very different from then.
The recovery must promote a new model of economic growth, which must be more digital and sustainable, not only with the environment, but also with people. “No one has to be left behind,” said Costa, and to achieve this he has summoned his colleagues to a summit in Porto in early May. The objective will be to agree on the social rights of citizens. Social convergence is necessary to guarantee good working conditions and to encourage Europeans to be able to work in any country with the same guarantees as in their own. This is a fundamental pillar of the collective recovery of the European economy.
The covid crisis has highlighted the urgency of this social convergence, as well as that of a greater health union. Costa must promote a European program to fight the virus that also serves to face those that may come in the future.
Out of doors, Portugal must reinforce the strategic autonomy of the EU. This implies, for example, diversifying business partners. The investment pre-agreement with China will be followed by another with India. A summit is scheduled in Porto, also in May, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Europe needs to fend for itself, especially after it has been proven that the US is not a reliable partner. The next president, Joe Biden, will try to mend the relationships that Trump has broken, but his foreign attention will be on China and not on Europe.
Portuguese diplomacy, which has a greater weight than that of its country, will also be very useful for Brussels and London to outline the details of their future relationship. Many loose fringes remain and Portugal’s historic good relationship with the UK will help to pick them up.