A health crisis that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Europeans was always going to overshadow the incoming Portuguese Presidency as it took over from Germany on 1 January. And, as Nuno Brito, Portugal’s ambassador to the EU, says, addressing the continuing impact of the pandemic will be of the “utmost importance.”
But Portugal’s permanent representative also says there is an ambitious, packed programme that the country hopes to fulfill in the coming weeks and months. This, he says, includes pushing ahead with the much-delayed Conference on the Future of Europe, an initiative initially championed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Speaking at an online briefing for the Presidency, Brito described the Conference as “a very important project” but which, partly due to the pandemic, was yet to launch. “But I believe we will be in a position, in the coming two months, to launch the first steps of this important initiative. This is necessary because it is important that citizens have a say in Europe’s future. It is important that we listen to them and their concerns and try to incorporate their ideas in our work.”
“We would like to see the [Brexit] deal agreed at Christmas approved as soon as possible by Parliament. But we also respect Parliament’s request to have more time before it votes”
He added, “The main issue now is not one of substance but of governance. But I am optimistic that it will start within the first two or three months of this year. We have been talking about this for too long. Now is the time for action and to deliver.” During the hour-long briefing on 5 January, the ambassador also outlined a raft of other Presidency priorities, including achieving what is called a “global Europe.”
He explained, “By this, I mean an open Europe. This is not about protectionism but, rather, multilateralism and standards. It is also about the European values that we want to promote, both inside and outside Europe.” This, he said, feeds into another priority - rebuilding relations with the United States. The aim here is to “strengthen dialogue with the US,” which he describes as “a strategic partner in all fields.”
With a new, pro-EU President at the helm, the EU should seek to exploit the full potential of transatlantic relations, he believes. “Joe Biden has already spoken with Charles Michel and I hope that in the six months of our presidency it will possible for EU leaders to meet the new president. This is very important, not only because good transatlantic ties are crucial for Europe, but so that we can fine tune our relationship with the US,” said Brito, Portugal’s former ambassador to the U.S.
With Portugal steering the EU agenda until the summer, Brito wants the EU to promote trade “not just with the US and China, but with Mexico, Canada and the Mercosur countries.”
Elsewhere, on the foreign policy and trade fronts, Portugal will organise an EU-India summit in Porto. “We want to diversify the EU’s relationships and strengthen ties with what is the world’s largest democracy and also a dynamic and emerging economy.” Relations with Africa, including a summit, will also be given priority, he said, adding, “This is key. If we talk about issues like development, trade and migration, these are all areas where Africa will be a key partner for the EU.”
Migration, he said, continues to be a “big issue” for Europe and a challenge which is “increasing again.” The Commission recently presented a “new pact on migration” and he concedes there is “not a blanket agreement” on the initiative. “That is why we will listen to all relevant parties to see which direction to move in.”
He went on, “On the issue of migration, people often talk about illegal migration but that is a mistake in my opinion because we also need to talk about legal migration.” The UK may have finally left the EU, but with the European Parliament not expected to debate and vote on the new trade and security agreement until March, there is still some unfinished business, he said.
“Post-Brexit, there is still some work to be finalised with the UK, including implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. We are currently going through a period of provisional implementation of the Brexit agreement. This is not just another relationship with a third country, but a relationship with a very important partner, one that was an EU member for nearly 50 years.”
“Joe Biden has already spoken with Charles Michel and I hope that in the six months of our presidency it will possible for EU leaders to meet the new president … Good transatlantic ties are crucial for Europe”
He told journalists, “We would like to see the deal agreed at Christmas approved as soon as possible by Parliament. But we also respect Parliament’s request, to have more time before it votes and we will act in a spirit of cooperation with the Parliament.”
Looking ahead to what promises to be a difficult and challenging half-year term, he said, “We understand that Portugal, holding the presidency, has to be an honest broker. This is a tradition of all Portuguese presidencies and this one will not be any different. The overall aim is to promote the common interests of the EU.”
He pledged, “We will do our part in these next six months.” Further comment came from the Portuguese Deputy Permanent Representative Pedro Lourtie who, taking part in the same debate, organised by the Brussels-based International Press Association, said the Portuguese Presidency wants to “ensure that the recovery is green”, adding, “and everyone can contribute to this.”
On the EU-wide vaccine rollout, he said, “This is a national competence, but we must coordinate things, share information and ensure that the contracts for the purchase of vaccines are fulfilled.”