Portugal to use EU presidency to bolster bloc’s vaccination drive

Rolling out the EU’s mass vaccination programme will be one of Portugal’s top priorities when it takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency on Friday as a new, more infectious strain of coronavirus spreads across Europe.

Augusto Santos Silva, foreign minister, said Lisbon’s socialist government would prioritise “the full development of the EU’s strategy of free, universal vaccination”. Persuading EU citizens that masks and other restrictive measures will remain essential for many more months will be another challenge.

Portugal will also seek to ensure that the EU’s €750bn coronavirus recovery fund turns into productive investment, alongside other programmes included in the bloc’s €1.8tn seven-year spending plan, both of which were approved in the past two months under Germany’s presidency.

“We believe the last six months were a period of big strategic decisions in the EU. Our responsibility is to put those decisions into practice and produce results,” Mr Santos Silva said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Portugal, whose economy has been battered by the European debt crisis and the 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 having a market economy, but one that also has a strong social dimension, that we are a liberal democracy that is also socially advanced,” said Mr Santos Silva. “That is the best antidote against populism.”

One of the most difficult challenges facing the Portuguese presidency will be advancing stalled negotiations on reforming the EU migration system. He describes the pact on asylum and migration, a European Commission plan announced in September, as “perhaps the most divisive subject in the EU”. 

Some member states wanted to close Europe to migration completely or only accept migrants of certain nationalities, religions or cultures, he said. “Other member states, like Portugal, say none of these criteria are acceptable.” The German presidency had been unable to move the issue forward, he added, but “let’s see if we can”.

He also wants to boost the momentum of the bloc’s digital transition projects in the wake of the pandemic, and to see the 2050 climate law, the cornerstone of the EU’s Green Deal, approved by the European Parliament.

A legal effort by the Hungarian and Polish governments to overturn the EU’s new rules that make access to EU funds conditional on respect for the rule of law is likely to be another thorny issue. 

“We have to be alert,” said Mr Santos Silva. “It is not only Hungary and Poland that create difficulties. Forces that call into question our values are growing in influence in countries like Portugal, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.” 

Mr Santos Silva believes Portugal has a reputation as an “honest broker”, an advantage when broaching tough topics. “Our national interests coincide very closely with those of Europe. The other 26 countries know that we’re not going to bring a national agenda to our presidency.”

Portugal will also focus on advancing the debate on the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the aim of being more independent and assertive in relation to powers like the US and China. “We don’t want to find ourselves again, as we did at the beginning of the pandemic, (. . .) without sufficient production capacity for such basic things as masks or medications,” he said.

But the country is sceptical of an EU industrial policy focused on building European “champions” from the biggest economies. Instead, it believes strengthening small and medium-sized companies at “the heart of the European economy” is the way forward, according to Mr Santos Silva.

This means making more rather than fewer trade deals, provided they are “balanced”, he said. Portugal will host an EU-India summit during its presidency, aimed in large part at advancing talks on a long-stalled free trade agreement. Brexit may have removed some of the hurdles to a deal, including differences over Indian import taxes on Scotch whisky.

Some politicians see strengthening ties with India as a means of giving the EU more leverage in trade talks with neighbouring China, following agreement this week on a long-awaited business investment treaty with Beijing.

That agreement is expected to cause friction with the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden. Difficult issues dividing the US and the EU, such as curbing Big Tech companies or access to US public contracts, would not change under Mr Biden, Mr Santos Silva said. But how they were dealt with would.

“We can see the past four years as a parenthesis in relations between the US and the EU . . . when the US administration came to look on Europeans as adversaries rather than friends,” he said. Under Mr Biden, dealings would “go back to the way they were”.

Portugal is also hopeful the bloc can embark on a successful new relationship with a post-Brexit UK under the terms of their new trade deal. 

Continuing EU-UK convergence on defence, policing, combating terrorism and other international issues will be “a hundred times more important than discussing fishing quotas”, said Mr Santos Silva.

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