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António Costa: Europe needs "reform and investment"

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By Sergio De Almeida
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António Costa: Europe needs "reform and investment"
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The Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union began at one of the most difficult moments in the management of the pandemic. Work was very constrained. The lack of common vaccination rules and the digital COVID certificate continue to attract a lot of criticism.

However, strong Portuguese pressure to approve the recovery and resilience plan is seen as one of the great achievements of this Presidency. The Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, gives us his insight on how his Presidency of the Council of the EU went, how the global health crisis was managed, the tense relationships between certain EU members and much more.

To watch the full interview with Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, click on the media player above.

The Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union ends with a European summit and some very tense moments. Let's discuss Hungary's controversial anti-LGBTQI rights law. How was your meeting with Viktor Orban? Was there no longer any need to maintain neutrality?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"Thank you for that question. Obviously, Presidents and Presidencies must try to act in an impartial way in regards to working methods and when they speak publicly. But obviously, when we have meetings we must speak with complete frankness and clarity. I think that this debate with Viktor Orban was very important because it was very direct, very open. All the member states expressed themselves very clearly in defense of the values of the European Union and underlined that the European Union is above all a community of values, more than a customs union, more than an internal market, more than a single currency. It is above all a community of values and therefore these values must be at the centre of our action".

Can you tell us what you said to Viktor Orban?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"Council meetings are confidential. I'm not going to tell you what I said. I will say that obviously, the treaties are very clear. Only those who want to be part of the Union are in the Union. Those who are in the Union are in it because they share those values and those values cannot be conditioned, they have to be respected. That is why Article 7 exists, to ensure compliance with the Treaties.

There are two cases that concern Article 7, one against Poland and the other against Hungary. The Portuguese Presidency has made progress. Two weeks ago, hearings were held on these cases and they are still ongoing.

The European Commission has already notified Hungary that it is required to provide explanations and, taking into account the explanations given, the European Commission will assess whether or not to open proceedings for violation of Article 7".

Does Hungary still have a place in the European Union of today?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"It is our wish that all the 27 member states remain part of the European Union. But everyone is free to choose their own path. That is something that is not worth hiding. Fortunately, we now have the Conference on the Future of Europe so that this debate can take place in a frank manner. Today the Member States do not all share the same values or have the same vision of the Union as they did when the Lisbon Treaty was approved.

Majorities have changed, political dynamics have changed, so there are States that have a different position. I think that the Conference on the Future of Europe is also a good time for us to take stock. The Treaty of Lisbon is flexible enough to allow a bit of everything: those who want to go faster can use the Passerelle Clauses that allow us to change to a majority vote on certain subjects, for example. Those who want to move at a slower pace can enhance cooperation, so there is enough flexibility to ensure that we are not always torn between the risk of paralysis and the risk of a breakdown. If there is an agreement among everybody, wonderful. If this is not possible, we cannot sit on the fence and be static or risk the whole system collapsing. So there are several paths that can be taken".

We have already seen the UK leave the European Union, but we have never seen a country expelled from the European Union.

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"It is not stipulated. What is stipulated under Article 7 is the suspension of the exercise of voting rights as the maximum sanction applicable to a country".

Another issue that led to no agreement at this European Summit concerns foreign policy: the French and German proposal for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This proposal was turned down. Is there no more room to negotiate with Vladimir Putin and that's why there won't be a summit?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"There were several reasons why that decision was reached. When it comes to the relationship with Russia, there is a common position for all member states. A proposal of this size, which comes at quite short notice, without the proper preparation, without the proper framework, becomes very difficult to pass.

I think everyone is well aware that Russia is our biggest neighbour. We must want a close, friendly, positive, constructive relationship with Russia. For that to happen, it is essential that Russia respects the fundamental principles of international law and it must have a fair relationship with the European Union and each of its Members. So that is the overall vision that we have. There is a desire to see a new framework for relations with Russia. For that to happen, it has to be properly prepared. There are 27 of us. We do not all have the same history with Russia. We do not all have the same geographical distance from Moscow and this must be taken into account when making decisions on this matter".

Another of the issues where consensus has been difficult within the European Union is the migration pact that was presented and proposed in 2020, but it has still not been signed. That was one of the priorities of the Portuguese Presidency.

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"The pact is broken down into different instruments. There are two in which we have taken important steps. One very important step is the directive on the blue card which has created legal immigration channels that are absolutely fundamental. Another, which we are concluding this week, is the negotiation with the European Parliament to set up the European Asylum Agency, which is a fundamental part of the revision of the asylum system in the European Union".

There is already talk of a new possibility of giving more money to Turkey, three billion euros on top of the six billion that was already given to them over the last six years, to stem the wave of migration. There are non-governmental organisations, like Amnesty International, that accuse the European Union of being held hostage to countries like Turkey and Morocco, for example, especially after the recent goings-on in Ceuta. They're accused of giving money but failing to effectively stop the source of the problem.

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"These are different situations. The proposal now being discussed in the Council is not about Turkey, but about the solidarity that the European Union should have with outside countries which are currently bearing an extremely heavy burden in receiving refugees, much heavier than the European Union. Countries like Jordan, for example, or countries like Egypt, which can and should be recipients of support from the European Union and that was the debate. There was no talk about Turkey in this matter".

But if we continue to give money to Turkey, don't you think that we will fall into the situation of being held hostage by third parties?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"One thing is absolutely clear: no country has the right to use refugees as a form of pressure on neighbouring countries. Europe cannot ignore that it itself is a factor of attraction. Refugees have multiple origins and for the whole migration issue to be tackled, we have to act in the countries of origin, in the transit countries, on our border and on the integration capacity of those entering Europe. We must also distinguish between immigration and refugee situations. This implies a global approach to the migration strategy and one single measure cannot have an effect on something. Moreover, we must understand that migration has existed since the beginning of mankind and as long as mankind exists migration will continue to exist. It is a natural process of life and therefore it is a phenomenon that must be regulated like all other human phenomena".

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

Now we come to the issue that has dominated the news over the last year and a half. You started the Portuguese Presidency with a very complicated situation in Portugal in relation to the pandemic. There were improvements and now we are back to a much more complicated situation. Could the lack of uniform rules on the movement of people across Europe complicate the battle against COVID and the management of a possible fourth wave?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"The rules and criteria for harmonization are fixed by recommendations. There was a set of rules approved in October, and on the 14th of June, a new recommendation for the harmonization of criteria came into force and these criteria manage the circulation of people. I do not believe that circulation within Europe has been the main contamination factor. Contamination exists every time two people meet. The more people meet, the greater the risk of contamination, whether they are from outside or inside Europe.

Therefore, the harmonisation criteria exist. What is fundamental is that we speed up the vaccination process. What we can see is that this new delta variant has an enormous capacity for transmission, but it has not beaten the immunisation offered by vaccines. On the other hand, with a large part of the most vulnerable population already protected, there has been an effect on both mortality and the severity of the disease. They are much lower than in other waves. This does not mean that we should be complacent. We must make an effort to identify variants and we must all continue to maintain good practices to protect each other".

How did you take German Chancellor Angela Merkel's criticism that Portugal has opened its doors to the British?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"We did not open our doors to the British, we followed European recommendations. Taking into account the level of infection in the UK, in order to enter Portugal, the British have to take a compulsory test to enter. No British person has entered Portugal without presenting a negative test".

Will these rules stay in place now that Madeira has joined the UK's "green list"?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"We don't have country-by-country rules. We have quantified rules which apply to any country depending on the situation it is in. If Belgium is above a certain level, those rules apply, if it is below, other rules apply. The rules are the same for Belgium, for the UK, for France, for Spain, for any country".

A lot of people relate the worsening of the situation to various events, sporting festivals, the Champions League final…

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"But this has been shown to not be true. The final of the Champions League took place in Porto and two-thirds of the increase in cases that we are seeing now is concentrated exclusively in the Lisbon region. It has nothing to do with the Champions League. Even in relation to tourists, it is difficult for this to happen. The destinations for British tourists are mainly the island of Madeira, where the growth is minimal, and the Algarve. So, two-thirds of the problem is concentrated in the Lisbon region, surely it has nothing to do with tourists. There could be other factors. We must also clarify that the growth of the pandemic at this stage has nothing to do with what happened in previous stages, particularly from a health point of view, particularly in regard to the pressure on the National Health Service and on the mortality rate".

Let's talk now about the Recovery and Resilience Plan. The President of the European Commission has been on a European tour to give the good news of the approval of various plans. Portugal should receive more than 16 billion euros, Spain almost 80 billion, Greece 30 billion. Italy is the record holder with 200 billion. Does the fact that you hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union make you more modest when it comes to presenting the plan? Does Portugal need less money than other countries?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"The distribution of funds was fixed under the German Presidency. It was fixed last July when we approved this instrument and it was linked to the impact of the pandemic on the growth forecasts of the various economies. At that stage, we were working with forecasts, so it was immediately anticipated that in 2022 there would be a review, an update to the criteria and distribution. So each country was allocated an amount taking into account that distribution model, taking into account the population and also the impact of the crisis. As you know, in the first wave, Italy and Spain were the two worst-hit countries and therefore they were the ones that had a higher compensation from the Recovery and Resilience Fund".

This flow of money into member states is almost as important as the European funds that went into some of them at the time of accession. There have been several errors, a lot of waste, that has caused a worsening crisis in many European countries. Is there now a mechanism to control how the money from this Recovery and Resilience Plan is going to be spent to avoid mistakes in the future?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"First of all, it should be noted that the report the European Court of Auditors made in 2019 on the track record of European funds shows that fraud with European funds is residual. It represents 0.75% of all funds. So there is no problem with the funds, there are several control mechanisms that have been effective. This time there is a much more demanding control mechanism, since all plans are made on a contractual basis, with targets, milestones and timetables. The funds are made available when these goals are achieved and the timetable is met. It’s all very strict. In these six months of our Presidency, firstly, all the Member States ratified the decision that allowed the European Commission to issue the debt. Secondly, the European Commission issued the debt under much better conditions, with lower financial costs than if it had been issued by several states. Thirdly, 24 member states have already presented their Recovery and Resilience Plans. Twelve already have the green light from the European Commission. On the 13th of July, at the first ECOFIN (ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL AFFAIRS COUNCIL) of the Slovenian Presidency, these 12 Recovery and Resilience Plans should be approved. This will be fundamental for Europe, this time to fulfill its needs, to give a robust and joint response to this economic crisis, not to repeat the mistakes it made 10 years ago, to respond in a way that doesn’t lead to austerity, but to reform and investment".

What was the most difficult moment of this 6 month Portuguese Presidency?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"I am not yet sufficiently distanced to be able to answer that. These were very demanding times from the point of view of fighting the pandemic, especially to put in place all the Recovery and Resilience Plans. We managed to approve all the legislation on Community funds, the next multi-annual financial framework, the last package was approved this week, the reform of the CAP, incorporating for the first time the social dimension and strengthening the green dimension of the Common Agricultural Policy. We managed to approve the relaxation of budgetary rules and the rules on State aid to enable an effective response to this crisis. The most striking moment for the future is that we have managed to move from the general theoretical principles of the European pillar of social rights to the action plan of the European pillar of social rights. There is now a timetable and concrete actions planned to turn this social dimension of Europe into a reality and make Europe truly a European Union that protects, enhances and develops its social model. All this is key to supporting the green and digital transitions. Another key milestone was the approval of the new climate law. For the first time, we have a continent that has a joint commitment on carbon neutrality for 2050. So I think that this Portuguese Presidency leaves a set of very significant marks. We should be proud because we have fulfilled the objective that we had set ourselves. It is time to act for a fair, green and digital recovery".

Slovenia takes over the presidency of the European Union on the 1st of July. What advice do you have for the Slovenian government for the next six months?

António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal:

"I don't give advice. I just gave my colleague, Janez Janša, Prime Minister of Slovenia, a compass, a replica of the compasses used by Portuguese navigators. A navigational instrument is always useful. By the way, the Slovenian Prime Minister is about to hold his second Presidency, the first was in 2008, he has experience, he will surely have a good presidency".