European Jewish Press: 'What has Portugal actually achieved during its six months at the EU helm?'

European Jewish Press: 'What has Portugal actually achieved during its six months at the EU helm?'

  • Quinta-feira, 01 de Julho de 2021

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In January, Portugal took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union from Germany. During the past six-months, Portugal has led the work at all levels of the Council, seeking to build co-operation, agreement and solidarity between the member stateswrites Colin Stevens in EU Reporter.

The last six months have been, arguably, the most crucial period in EU history when the member states have implemented vaccination programmes, sought to recover from the coronavirus crisis and hopefully reopen their economies. João Ferreira, who is a Portuguese MEP from Portugal, is partly critical of the presidency, saying that the “so-called social summit, supposedly the high point of the Portuguese Presidency of the EU, was marked by short-sighted objectives”.

At the end of June, Portugal will hand over the EU Council Presidency to Slovenia. Its tenure has taken place amid the COVID-19 pandemic resulting, not only in one of the deepest political and economic crises in the EU’s history, but also impacting its foreign relations on the global stage.

It is an opportune time to take stock of Portugal’s achievements during its six months at the helm of the Council.  What has been achieved in terms of the Presidency’s key priorities? How, for example, was Portugal able to contribute to strengthening the EU’s role on the international stage and to shaping the Union’s foreign policy? What are the main challenges ahead, including in terms of the COVID-19 recovery?

So, what is the assessment of Portugal’s performance during this turbulent period?

Well, on that, the jury is most certainly out.

Portuguese Greens MEP Francisco Guerreiro told this website, “The best of the Portuguese Presidency was the deal on the Tax Transparency directive.”

“Unlike many files like the FTT or the CCCTB that have been blocked in Council for years, this directive approved in the beginning of June will make the Multinationals disclose their profits, their paid taxes (if any) and the number of workers they have in each EU country, in each tax haven, in each jurisdiction.”

However, the deputy is at pains to add, “The most negative part of this Presidency was their inability to change the paradigm of the whole CAP and its structure and guiding principles. This will result in a CAP that doesn’t comply with the Green Deal or offer the necessary changes to revert the ecological degradation we are experiencing.”

In fact, Portugal’s term as “head” of the EU got off to a bad start (from which it struggled to recover) with allegations, detailed in the online newspaper POLITICO, about what it called Portugal’s lavish spending. According to the 1,500 word article, Covid-19 threatened to transform Portugal’s ‘moment in the EU spotlight’ into a ‘ghost presidency’.

It was alleged that since taking the reins of the rotating Council presidency in January, Portugal had signed contracts worth hundreds of thousands of euros to acquire equipment, drinks and even clothing for events that are unlikely to be held in person.

The paper said the presidency spent €260,591 to equip a press centre in Lisbon— even though the presidency’s press briefings are being held online and foreign journalists have not been traveling to the Portuguese capital; paid a wine company €35,785 for drinks and signed a €39,780 contract to purchase shirts and suits.

The Press centre work, it was claimed by the paper, was given to a company that “had not obtained a public contract since 2011, and whose previous experience in public sector contracts involved  organising entertainment for village festivals.

Susana Coroado, president of Transparência e Integridade, the Portuguese wing of Transparency International, was quoted as saying the presidency was “less about work meetings and more about selling Portugal to the outside world.”

The presidency, it is also claimed, has seen a return of corporate sponsorships,  a departure from the previous German presidency, which refused to have corporate labels associated with the EU.

Portugal’s minister for foreign affairs Augusto Santos Silva condemns criticism of lavish spending by the Portuguese EU presidency as “ridiculous”.

But that is not all.

The European Commission seized on that issue in its 2020 report on the rule of law chastising Portugal for not doing enough to fight corruption.

At the time, Commissioner Didier Reynders said that although the country had created a legal framework to promote transparency, it had failed to set aside the resources to properly carry out that mission.

There have also been revelations, during the presidency, that the Portuguese government overstated the qualifications of its (unsuccessful) nominee for Portugal’s seat at the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO).

The controversial appointment by the Portuguese government of Magistrate José Guerra to the post was branded “worrying” by the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.

Portuguese Justice Minister Francisca Van Dunem found herself at the centre of  controversy after her government presented false data on the government’s preferred magistrate.

On a more positive note the European Commission recently gave a positive assessment to Portugal’s €16.6 billion recovery and resilience plan, consisting of €13.9 billion in grants and €2.7 billion in loans. The financing provided by the Recovery and Resilience Facility – at the heart of NextGenerationEU – will support the implementation by 2026 of crucial investment and reform measures put forward by Portugal to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, even here, some question if the control systems put in place by Portugal are considered sufficiently adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. Critics have urged the EU to provide sufficient details on how  the Portuguese national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds in the country.

Yet more controversy during the presidency came when Portuguese PM António Costa  reportedly criticised the proposal to have a mechanism linking EU funding with upholding the rule of law, a huge issue for the EU and discussed as recently as last week by the European parliament.

Elsewhere, in a report on Portugal published recently, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT) once again urged the Portuguese authorities to take determined action to prevent police ill-treatment and ensure that cases of alleged ill-treatment are investigated effectively.

The council said localised overcrowding in prisons such as Caxias, Porto and Setúbal remains a serious problem which severely affects living conditions, the regime, staff-inmate relations and good order. Vulnerable persons detained in these three prisons were held in very poor conditions with less than 3m² of living space each and confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

In the course of the visit, the CPT’s delegation received a considerable number of credible allegations of ill-treatment by police officers. The alleged ill-treatment consisted primarily of slaps, punches and kicks to the body and head as well as beatings with batons and took place at the time of apprehension, as well as during time spent in a police station.

This and other issues have served as something as an embarrassment to Portugal during its keenly awaited place in the EU spotlight.

All this comes against the backdrop of continuing concern about the pace of the reform process in the country and also the ongoing fall out of Banco Espirito Santo (BES), which collapsed in 2014 under a mountain of debt.

Recover Portugal represents a group of European financial institutions holding Novo Banco bonds. Novo Banco was created in 2014 as part of the resolution on BES.

Recover Portugal’s members invested in the reform and recovery of the Portuguese economy and are taking action against the illegal retransfer of Novo Banco notes in 2015.

Since its (almost) exemplary recovery from the financial crisis and the EU bail-out, Portugal has been promoting an image of “EU´s good student” and “poster boy” of economic reform.

But is this narrative really based on facts, or mere marketing? One thing is certain, Portugal has been lucky to escape the sort of media scrutiny that Italy has received, given its size and the notoriety of its politics.

Portugal’s six months in the spotlight is about to come to end and the sad reality of Portuguese politics is a good deal more convoluted than its shiny “poster boy” image suggests.

What has Portugal actually achieved during its six months at the EU helm?

One critic, who declined to be named, gave a blunt answer, saying: “It has used it to bolster its new image but other than that it has done very little to fix its problems.”

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