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António Costa in line for EU top job, despite judicial woes

Former Portuguese prime minister António Costa
Former Portuguese prime minister António Costa Copyright Armando Franca/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Armando Franca/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn JonesIsabel Marques da Silva
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A sprawling corruption probe tumbled his government. Costa is now aiming for political vindication.


Portugal’s former prime minister António Costa is tipped to be named the next President of the European Council, in a move that could see him fully restore his political credibility after he was embroiled in a corruption investigation that brought his stay in office to a halt.

After lengthy discussions in Brussels on Monday, EU diplomats said Costa is one of a trio of candidates pencilled in for three power roles in Brussels, although the appointments are still vulnerable to political horse-trading.

His status as a testemunha (witness) in an ongoing judicial probe into corruption and influence-peddling did not initially emerge as a stumbling block.

Last November, Costa abruptly resigned as the Portuguese prime minister in the wake of revelations his aides had enabled irregular investment deals for lithium and green hydrogen projects - with Costa initially put under investigation.

The 62-year-old veteran has consistently and fiercely defended his innocence and says he stepped down from government to preserve his political integrity. It emerged that prosecutors had wrongly mixed up Costa’s name with that of Economy Minister António Costa Silva in wiretap transcripts, throwing the credibility of the legal case into question.

A snap election was held in March, which saw the centre-right opposition win by a razor-thin margin and the far right challenge the traditional two-party dominance in Portuguese politics for the first time. A centre-right minority government led by Prime Minister Luis Montenegro has since been sworn in.

Now, an appointment to one of the EU’s top jobs could help Costa reaffirm his credentials as one of the bloc’s most trusted and respected politicians. A socialist, Costa’s political family is claiming the European Council presidency for the next five years, and he has emerged as their top candidate. 

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest boosts for Costa is the unwavering support of the newly-installed prime minister Montenegro, previously his political rival. 

Montenegro has described Costa as the best candidate for the job and vowed to do everything in his power to support his bid, an endorsement considered pivotal in giving credibility to Costa’s claim to the Council presidency.

The Portuguese premier says he has “more trust” in Costa than he would have in a socialist of another nationality, and has hailed his strong track record in promoting European integration, backing Ukraine and supporting the EU’s enlargement process.

Former Portuguese caretaker prime minister Antonio Costa, rear, welcomes Luis Montenegro, the current prime minister, for a meeting at the Sao Bento palace, Lisbon
Former Portuguese caretaker prime minister Antonio Costa, rear, welcomes Luis Montenegro, the current prime minister, for a meeting at the Sao Bento palace, LisbonArmando Franca/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Costa is also well-liked by Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen - whilst her relationship with the current Council President Charles Michel is frosty at best - and has been a constructive partner in the European Council for almost a decade.

According to political analyst Ricardo Borges de Castro, Costa is a skilled negotiator able to “bring together” positions of all leaders from all political colours and “get there where others would perhaps have more difficulty.”

Ultimately, it is Costa’s “capacity for dialogue” as “a good negotiator” that will give him the edge, Borges de Castro also told Euronews.

Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob, a liberal, said on Monday he had received “clarifications” from the new Portuguese government that Costa’s name would soon be fully cleared. "I just support him because he has lots of experience, lots of wisdom,” Golob told reporters.

Two other sources familiar with the negotiations said that there was no major opposition voiced during the negotiations towards Costa, and that his nomination would likely be confirmed.


Right-wing floats concerns, torpedoes talks

But another source told Euronews that some leaders had expressed concerns Costa did not share the majority of EU leaders’ views on the need to up the bloc’s efforts in tackling the rise in migratory flows into Europe.

One of the first major policy changes of the new centre-right administration of Montenegro has been to tighten Portugal’s migration rules, which under Costa had allowed non-EU citizens to migrate to Portugal without an employment contract.

Costa therefore has a reputation for spearheading some of the most liberal ‘open-door’ migration policies in the bloc, a red flag for the most hardline right-wing governments represented in the European Council, such as the Italian government of Giorgia Meloni.

Meloni’s governing partner - foreign minister Antonio Tajani of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) - told reporters after a meeting of his political family in Brussels that he was neither convinced of Costa’s candidacy because he had not taken a firm line on the war in Ukraine.


The EPP also decided to torpedo the talks on the Council presidency on Monday by trying to drive a hard bargain: splitting the two upcoming 2.5-year terms of the Council presidency between a Socialist and a candidate of their own.

The move - which caught the socialists off-guard - is a highly risky move for the EPP, which needs the support of socialist and liberal lawmakers to usher in their top candidate Ursula von der Leyen to the role of Commission president. The socialists could play that bargaining card to force the EPP to climb down from their claim to a stake in the Council presidency.

Orbán on board?

While Costa’s progressive views and history of strong social policies have the potential to irk some of the bloc’s most hard-right leaders, his warm, personal relationship with some of these leaders could prove pivotal for him in securing broad backing.

Last summer, Costa sparked outrage at home after amending his diplomatic schedule to fly in an Air Force jet to Hungary to sit alongside Orbán in Budapest’s Puskás Aréna for the Europa League final between Seville and Rome.

António Costa (left) and Viktor Orbán (right)
António Costa (left) and Viktor Orbán (right)Armando Franca/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved

These ties could prove critical - one of the next Council President’s biggest challenges will be to muster up unanimous support for key EU decisions, with Orbán the EU leader most prone to wield his veto power to derail such decisions.

And with Hungary holding the next six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of this year, if elected, Costa’s ability to build bridges with the black sheep of the European Council could prove crucial.

Speaking to reporters after leaders discussed top jobs, Orbán claimed that "the deal was done" on the three names floated for the top jobs in Brussels, but questioned the exclusion of more ultra-conservative leaders from the appointments.

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