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Portugal's EU presidency to focus on social justice

Jochen Faget
January 1, 2021

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa aims to work on policy fields that have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. He also wants enhanced relations with India.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa
Portugal took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union from Germany on January 1Image: STEPHANIE LECOCQ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva will be relieved that a new EU budget and post-Brexit deal were adopted in Brussels before their country assumed the Council of the European Union presidency in January. This allows Portugal to focus for the six-month term on issues that have received scant attention of late: making the EU more resilient to crises, more environmentally friendly and more socially just. In addition, Portugal wants to boost the bloc's international standing.

"We hope to quickly implement the new budget and coronavirus payouts," says Silva. Portugal itself, like many other member states, is desperate to receive its share of the €750 billion ($919 billion) coronavirus relief package. Some €26 billion will go to the country to tackle pandemic-related problems and help stimulate the economy.

Domestic challenges

Portugal's minority Socialist Party (PS) government will need this payout to continue its agenda of social welfare reforms, with the PS reliant on the parliamentary support of either the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) or Left Bloc to push through any legislative measures.

Portugal's unemployment rate has risen to about 9% since the outbreak of the pandemic. Public debt has soared to a record 131% of gross domestic product (GDP). Portugal’s GDP amounts to a mere 80% of the EU average and has fallen a further 9% because of the coronavirus crisis. The country's tourism industry, which was booming, has now lain dormant for months. In 2019, it accounted for 14% of Portuguese GDP.

People lying at Tamariz Beach
Portugal's beaches remained largely bare in summerImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

Forging compromises

The small country in the far west of continental Europe is therefore eager to make the most of its turn at the Council of the European Union presidency.

"Like all small EU member states, Portugal will use the presidency to cast itself in a favorable light and raise its profile," says Monica Dias of Lisbon's Catholic University of Portugal. The political scientist thinks Portugal could do well during this six-month period, as smaller, less influential member states tend to compensate with their diplomatic prowess.

Portugal's history of forging political compromises could also be an asset during its term in the presidency as it aims to foster greater solidarity and more social awareness in Europe, says Dias. "Without a more social Europe, it will not be possible to build a greener Europe and advance digitization," says Dias. "These fields are interconnected and cannot be promoted independently of one another."

Strengthening EU-India ties

Finally, Portugal wants to achieve a highlight in the EU’s external relations by staging an India summit.

"It is important that we strengthen our political and economic ties with India to create a geopolitical equilibrium," says Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva. "We cannot overlook the world’s biggest democracy."

Dias says India could offer the EU an important export market. So far, it is unclear whether the summit on May 8 — bringing together heads of state and government — will be staged in Lisbon or online to ensure social distancing. Either way, Portugal, which was the colonial power in part of the Indian state of Goa up into the 1960s, has good chances of making the meeting a success. Until this day, Portugal maintains a strong relationship with India. Costa, whose family originates from Goa, was even made a Overseas Citizen of India by that country's prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2017.

This article was translated from German

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