Putting the puzzle together: Portugal’s Council presidency

European Council President, Charles Michel (L) accompanied by the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa (R)
European Council President, Charles Michel (L) and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa (R) in Jan 2021

Twenty-one years ago, the European Union was a very different political community, but today, its structural problems seem almost the same. It was in 2000, during Portugal’s second rotating presidency, that António Costa, the current Portuguese Prime Minister, made his debut with the complex task of coordinating European priorities. He was Minister of Justice in the government led by the current UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. At the outset, he faced an unprecedented crisis over the rule of law in the Union.

In January 2000, early in the Portuguese presidency, Austria announced that it would form a coalition government between the conservative party and the emerging far-right FPOe, led by Joerg Haider. The Union’s response was swift and unanimous. The remaining 14 countries decided that they “will not promote or accept any kind of official bilateral contacts at the political level with an Austrian government including the FPOe; they will not support Austrian candidates for positions in international organisations, and Austrian Ambassadors in EU capitals will only be received at a technical level”.

In the memory of António Costa — ­who, at the end of the German presidency in 2020, reluctantly accepted the creation of a mechanism that would make the allocation of European funds dependent on countries’ upholding the rule of law ­— will surely be this landmark episode of his first Portuguese presidency. On the one hand, the political coordination of countries and their “red line” on racist, xenophobic and hate speech was quite clear in 2000. Then, it was possible to decide unanimously that hate speech in the EU was not a matter of ‘freedom of expression’ or a matter of domestic policy in each of the countries over which there was no EU jurisdiction, but a threat to the founding values of the Union and its future. On the other hand, the response in 2000 was political: the other countries left Austria in blackout until, under pressure, Haider eventually resigned.

Neither this political pressure nor the ‘red line’ itself is possible today, as can be seen, from Budapest to Warsaw in a Europe of 27. But António Costa is probably the acting European politician with the most experience in, and memory of, these issues.

Experience and memory are two rare qualities in today’s politics, where political cycles have adapted to the speed with which we inform ourselves online. But these qualities can also turn into defects. An experienced politician with memory often reacts with cynicism, seeing in new issues a flashback of what he has already experienced.

Costa will also remember the failure which was, in practice, the great political flagship of his first European presidency: the Lisbon Strategy which promised to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, before 2010, capable of sustainable economic growth accompanied by a quantitative and qualitative improvement in employment and greater social cohesion”. Ideas such as ‘sustainable development’, ecological assessment of policies, an end to ‘social exclusion’ and internal inequality within the Union were offered as values to strive for. As we have seen, from 2000 onwards, a Presidency can achieve an almost impossible agreement — to adopt a strategy to resist the negative effects of globalisation — which still makes sense today in the words and measures adopted, but which proves impossible to put into practice. Portugal was, as we know, one of the first victims of this lack of European social and economic strategy when the financial crisis shook the world in 2008. 

It is to this Union, divided between ‘frugal’ coalitions — from countries that reject social strategy (such as the Netherlands and Austria) and ‘populists’ (the new name of the extreme right, of which Haider and the Le Pen family in France were isolated symbols in 2000) — that António Costa’s government will now suggest a common course for six months.

The Portuguese Prime Minister is a fierce critic of both camps that radicalised the European debate in 2020. “If we don’t respect each other and if we don’t understand that we have to be able to respond together to a common challenge, then no one has understood what the European Union is,” Costa said at the end of the March European Council, addressing, in particular, the Hague government, whose statements on how Spain and Italy were dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic were considered by the Portuguese PM to be “repugnant”. For Costa, the “pettiness” of the frugals “threatens the future of the EU”. “If the EU wants to survive,” he warned, “it is unacceptable that a political leader from any country should be able to respond in this way to a pandemic like the one we are experiencing.”

For the Visegrad group and for the political camp of the anti-migration nationalists, Costa also has a hard line: “We have to understand that migration is part of humanity. Since there are human beings, there is migration… In times of crisis, there should be compulsory quotas between countries… Climate change will trigger climate refugees which we will have to take as a fact for the future of our continent, considering the geographical position we have, and with the differences in demographic dynamics between Europe and its neighbours. This is not a question of short-sightedness, but an existential question about the future of global society.”

António Costa likes to build complex puzzles — it’s his favourite hobby, outside politics. He won’t have much time to build a big one in the next six months, unless we take it as a metaphor for his plans in the presidency of the EU.

The Portuguese Council presidency will have to coordinate coronavirus vaccinations across the EU and put the €750 billion recovery fund on track, just to name two of the top priorities of the moment. At the same time, the Social-Democrat government in Lisbon aims to recover the EU’s Social Pillar plan as part of the recovery, and go ahead with the Conference on the Future of Europe. The country has also a geopolitical agenda (it was during the Portuguese presidency of 2000 that the first EU-Africa summit took place, for example). But perhaps even more important than a new one is the return to the Trans-Atlantic cooperation with the USA. Lisbon will pressure for a summit with the new administration of Joe Biden. India is also a “top priority” for the Portuguese, and António Costa has a close relationship with India, being the son of Orlando da Costa, an Indian writer from the former Portuguese colony of Goa. Then there is also the complicated EU-China agenda. 

But, for a European politician like Costa, more important are the “small steps”. The Portuguese presidency will not be willing to ease the roadblocks against legislative transparency in the Council, for example. But it already gave us a sign that it can at least change a small but important piece of law that has been blocked by the Council for years: the Country by Country Reporting (CBCR) directive which aims to force big multinational companies (such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon) to disclose their tax planning in all EU countries. Investigate Europe has been reporting on this Council veto for more than a year, disclosing how some countries are blocking this directive in clear contradiction to their own political statements about the need to enforce tax justice. During the previous German presidency, the subject was put out of a vote, even if there was a clear majority in the Council to approve it.

Now, Portugal has the chance to bring CBCR to a vote. Will it do it? The deputy permanent representative, Ambassador Pedro Lourtie answered us, in his first video press conference: “Our intention is to take it up again, first in the working parties, to see with the member states if the conditions are met. We will put the question to the Member States and if we see that the conditions to have the proposal approved are met, we will move forward.” Lourtie was clear: “Portugal is in favour and our political ambition is to reach an agreement in the Council.”

This seems to be the smallest piece of the puzzle that Costa has to build. But if he can put the small pieces together, the frame of the Portuguese presidency can take shape.

Listen to Paulo Pena speak with the IE podcast about our ongoing investigation into the Council of the EU: