Portugal bids EU presidency ‘adeus’ as Slovenia takes the helm

As Portugal hands over the reins of the EU’s rotating presidency, Martin Banks assesses the highs and lows of its term in office - and looks ahead to Slovenia’s tenure.
European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

01 Jul 2021

Despite a stuttering start, senior MEPs have generally given a positive assessment of Portugal’s term as holder of the EU presidency, albeit with some reservations.

The last six months have been for some the most crucial period in EU history, as Member States implemented vaccination programmes, set out to recover from the Coronavirus crisis and sought to reopen their economies.

On July 1, Portugal handed over the EU Council Presidency to Slovenia, which itself has come under fire from MEPs and others for alleged backsliding on the rule of law.

As for Portugal, its tenure took place amid the still ongoing 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.

MEPs told The Parliament Magazine what they thought of Portugal’s performance as it steered the EU through arguably one of its rockiest periods in history.

ECR MEP Geert Bourgeois says he has been impressed by Portugal’s six months presidency. The Belgian explains, “I very much appreciate that the Portuguese Presidency made the restoration of multilateralism a priority from the outset. Together with the world's major democracies, the EU must take the lead in setting the standards for the future and generating a more level playing field globally. The first results are encouraging, with an encouraging G7 summit and successful EU-US, EU-Canada and EU-India summits.”

He added, “All these partners emphasise the importance of the Paris Climate Agreement and have shared a will to reform the WTO. I would also like to thank the presidency for the efforts made towards new trade agreements and to mention the outcome of the successful EU-India summit, where, after eight years of standstill, there is a prospect not only of negotiations on an investment protection agreement but also of a separate trade agreement with India.”

“Unfortunately, it was not possible to achieve a result on the consolidation of the EU-Mercosur agreement. Above all, under the Portuguese presidency, the European digital COVID certificate was approved with unprecedented speed. I would like to express my thanks to the presidency for this. The freedom of European citizens is recovering at a rapid pace. I encourage everyone to make use of the COVID certificate - and to visit Lisbon, one of my favourite cities.”

“The Portuguese presidency has really lived up to the expectations of the moment, making progress in delivering the European project that people deserve” Iratxe García Pérez, S&D leader

Elsewhere, Socialist group leader Iratxe García Pérez is equally satisfied with Portugal’s performance at the helm of the EU since the start of the year.

The Spanish MEP says, “I want to give a very special thanks to Ana Paula, the Portuguese Secretary of State. It has not been easy because we came from a German presidency during which very important files had been drawn up. However, the Portuguese presidency has really lived up to the expectations of the moment, making progress in delivering the European project that people deserve.”

“This is thanks to the hard work, commitment and understanding of a woman like Ana Paula. We talk a lot about breaking glass ceilings and strengthening women’s leadership. Well, Ana Paula is a great example for many of us.”

Further comment came from Portuguese Greens/EFA deputy Francisco Guerreiro, who thinks the “best” of the Portuguese presidency was the deal on the Tax Transparency directive.

He explains, “Unlike many files like the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) or the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) that have been blocked in Council for years, this directive that was approved at 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.”

On the other hand, Guerreiro says that the “most negative part” of his country’s presidency was its “inability to change the paradigm of the whole Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and its structure and guiding principles.” He fears that this will result in a CAP that “does not comply with the Green Deal or offer the necessary changes to revert the ecological degradation we are experiencing."

Portuguese The Left MEP João Ferreira says the Portuguese presidency was “marked by the constraints that the EU imposes on Member States.”

An example, he says, includes “the conditionality associated with the Recovery and Resilience Mechanism - imposing ‘structural reforms’ and unacceptable pressure on labour and social rights and public services, including in health.”

“Under the Portuguese presidency, the European digital COVID certificate was approved with unprecedented speed. I would like to express my thanks to the presidency for this” Geert Bourgeois, ECR

The presidency, he says, has failed to halt a “submission to the interests of pharmaceutical companies and the defence of their profits, with the refusal to diversify and lift patents, which is imperative for faster progress in vaccination.”

He adds, “The so-called ‘social summit’, supposedly the high point of the presidency, was marked by short-sighted objectives in line with the EU’s neo-liberal policies which do not conceal attempts to level down labour and social rights.”

During its presidency, Portugal came under attack over its candidate for the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, with accusations that its selection was based on “false arguments” presented by the Portuguese government and made against the recommendation of the European selection panel.

At the very start of its term, when it took over from Germany back in January, the Portuguese government was also accused of “lavish spending” on presidency events that were unlikely to happen due to the pandemic.

According to Transparency International, the presidency was “less about work meetings and more about selling Portugal to the outside world.”

However, the 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. Portugal was the first Member State to get the green light for its recovery plan.

With Portugal’s time in the EU spotlight now over, the focus shifts to Slovenia.

It is the second time Slovenia has held the role since it joined the EU in 2004 and the Slovene presidency immediately faces a mountain of challenges, one of which is to win over numerous critics such as Greens/EFA MEP Daniel Freund, who has voiced concern about the country’s suitability to undertake such a task.

“The so-called ‘social summit’, supposedly the high point of the presidency, was marked by short-sighted objectives in line with the EU’s neo-liberal policies” João Ferreira, The Left

He says this is partly because civil society and the free media in Slovenia are “under fierce attack” by the country’s Prime Minister Janez Janša.

“Democracy and the rule of law are under pressure. The situation is deteriorating at an ever faster pace,” he says.

Fellow Greens member Sergey Lagodinsky agrees, saying, “Janša has repeatedly tried to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms and weaken democratic institutions. The political debate is poisoned, and vicious personal attacks are commonplace. The upcoming presidency could be misused to lend support and ideological legitimacy to the alliance of illiberals from the very top of the EU.”

Slovenia’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Iztok Jarc, concedes that his country’s term as head of the EU will be a “transitional presidency.”

The ambassador says, “The main aim of the presidency is to contribute to the current health and other challenges and the economic recovery. The crisis highlights that we can do things better together. After many initial frustrations important first steps have been taken in handling the pandemic. We must learn the lessons, which are to be better protected for future crises.”

In addition to driving forward the EU’s Recovery Plan, one of the priorities of the presidency, he says, will be to take the lessons learned from the crisis to improve the Union’s crisis management ability.

This ambition is not limited to health, but also covers other areas such as future cyber security, climate, and migration challenges.

The six-month presidency will, he says, also prioritise issues which were on the agenda pre-COVID-19, such as the green agenda, with the COP26 climate change conference due to take place in Glasgow in November.

The Conference on the Future of Europe will also take centre stage, “opening a new space for debate” with citizens to reflect on Europe’s future and how to address Europe's challenges and priorities, he believes.

On the Conference, he says, “Our aim is to engage and promote comprehensive debate with citizens about the type of Europe they want to live in.”

Slovenia, he says, will also support the countries of the Western Balkans on their path towards European integration, also by hosting an EU-Western Balkans Summit in October in Slovenia.

Jarc says, “Our presidency is part of a trio of presidencies along with Portugal and Germany and we will work closely with them along with France, the next presidency after ours. It is going to be a very demanding agenda and this is a transitional presidency in terms of coming back to normality. But we want to do our jobs in a pragmatic and efficient way.”

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