Portugal holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union until the end of June. As it deals with the impact and prepares the aftermath of the pandemic, Delano spoke with ambassador to Luxembourg António Gamito about what divides and unites the EU, the importance of serving citizens and the bloc’s role in the world.
Cordula Schnuer: How has the pandemic impacted your job, and how do you connect with the Portuguese community in the country at the moment?
António Gamito: I count the days for the pandemic to be over. My job is to keep contact with people--face to face, not by WebEx. As the local representative of the presidency of the Council of the European Union, I have to do everything online. It’s impossible to have everybody around the same table freely discussing different issues. It’s much more difficult.
According to Statec, there are around 100,000 Portuguese in Luxembourg, but with people from the border regions, it’s around 150,000. Since the start of the pandemic, we never closed the embassy or the consulate for the Portuguese community, but a lot of things have changed, and we have had to adapt.
There’s a long history between Luxembourg and Portugal. How has it been marked by the pandemic?
Just a few months before the pandemic we organised two exhibitions about the relationship between both countries. Grand Duchess Charlotte had a lot of Portuguese blood in her veins. The grand duke has Portuguese cousins. This is very important.
When Luxembourg was in a difficult position because of covid, Portuguese teachers helped give classes in the local school system. And now, when Portugal was in a difficult position, Luxembourg offered to send assistance. It’s easy. It’s natural. The presence of the Portuguese community here cements that relationship.
And in terms of the European Union, we share a lot of common positions, common interests among the 27 countries. The pandemic cannot put this in jeopardy.
Speaking about the EU, how has the pandemic changed the agency of Portugal’s council presidency?
In the European Union, we try to programme things in advance. We have a trio, composed of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia. It’s a pipeline of things that have been distributed between the three countries on this trio. We are picking up a lot of things from the Germany, like finalising the recovery plan, starting things on the green and digital agendas. We continue to deal with the pandemic.
It has slowed down the agenda. Most of the meetings right now are online meetings. It’s different when leaders meet personally. Looking at a screen, talking at a distance is not the proper way to find solutions and consensus. But despite that, there’s a lot of ambition behind our agenda and we are going to concentrate on the priorities that are most important for European citizens.
The agenda revolves around three key areas: pandemic recovery, implementing the social pillar and strengthening EU autonomy. Why these three?
Europe needs to be honest. We have a lot of problems. First Brexit. Then the pandemic. We need to recover the economy, create more jobs, especially for the youth. People are being vaccinated, but not at the pace we would like. During the Portuguese presidency in 2007, we suggested a common policy on public health. Nobody wanted that at the time. Perhaps our response to the pandemic would have been different, more rapid. Now we are also trying to create the fundamental concepts of a future health policy among the 27.
We have to grow again, but not as we did in the past. We should incorporate the green, climate and energy transition in our development. We need new jobs and young people doing these jobs. We need a new digital era. We are spending a lot of money on combating the pandemic, which is diverted from the economy.
The decision regarding the budget of the European Union and the Next Generation EU programme, €750bn, was taken in July 2020. Now we are in March 2021 and we still cannot use the money to start the recovery. We need to wait for the completion of procedures by member states. We have to find consensus. It’s not easy. It’s not impossible either.
We shouldn’t forget that after the Second World War, it was the social model that helped shape Europe. We need to update the social model to the new challenges, that’s why the social pillar of rights is so important for us. You are working for the citizens of the European Union.
Talking about recovery, Portugal was particularly hard hit by EU-mandated austerity in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Has the EU learned its lessons from that experience?
Yes, I think so. In 2008, Portugal was very much in debt, as well as a few other countries. But people thought that it was just five or six countries and went for this mechanism between the European Central Bank, the [European] Commission and the International Monetary Fund. We thought the crisis wasn’t structural, that we could help these countries and that’s it.
The pandemic has shown that we weren’t right at the time. Now, for the first time, member states allowed the commission to borrow money on the markets. If member states had done the same in 2008, the crisis wouldn’t have been as big. But now, because the crisis affects all member states, they came up with this instrument, allowing the commission to borrow money. We reached this solution a little too late, but it’s better late than never.
Is some of that emphasis on the social pillar rooted in Portugal’s experience post-2008?
It helps to understand the situation and why we need to change. We want to reinforce the labour market, guarantee a minimum revenue for families, combat poverty, social exclusion and inequalities. There are a lot of proposals for directives, regulations and plans on how to achieve this. We want to respond to demographic challenges, promote social and territorial cohesion.
We want to coordinate the social security systems between the European Union member states. We want to devise a mechanism--and this won’t be possible to achieve in the next five or six presidencies--that would allow member states step by step to reach a common minimum salary in the European Union.
On the topic of demographics: you inherited discussions around the migration and asylum pact from Germany, which didn’t progress as far as they had hoped…
Because of the differences between member states. Europe is divided. It’s a fact. We need to work on three elements: countries of origin, transit countries and the countries taking in migrants. We need to find a mechanism accepted by all to manage migration. On the other hand, we are putting a lot of effort into building a charter for migrants and what rights they should have. We are very concerned about undocumented children migrants.
Portugal and Luxembourg are really on the same side, but other member states see it differently. Our job is to make them see that this is a problem related to the foundation of the European Union, to the core values, and that we need to find a solution as soon as possible.
Regarding core values, a lot of attention has been put on the rule of law mechanism agreed under the German presidency. Is it a good compromise?
It’s a compromise. It’s a consensus. The Germans found a mechanism to keep certain countries within the democratic values and rule of law values. For me, the last resource of upholding the values of the European Union is the Court of Justice. It’s a good safeguard to keep the European Union a union that values rules and democracy and respects the basic values the founding father had in mind.
Another agenda item for the presidency is a global Europe. But if it is divided, what will it take to fulfil this role as a global power?
To be a global power you need to be organised. And the pandemic is showing us that we need to be more organised overall. Secondly, you have to have a strong economy, a strong model of social rights, and to abide by the rule of law. All of these are fundamental principles and values, which strengthen the European Union as, I would say, the beacon of soft power in the world.
The European Union is a universal player not only because of its soft power, but because of the relations its member states have around the world. What we are trying to do is to use the connections of the member states in favour of the EU as a whole.
The US wants to work more with Europe, through Nato--which is the basis of the transatlantic relationship--and through trade. There’s a lot that unites rather than divides us, even when Trump was president. The dialogue is easier now, the tone has changed, but make no mistake: the Americans will continue to defend their own interests.
China is a very important partner for us, but we cannot forget India in order to balance our relationship with that part of the world, including the members of Asean. We are going to organise a conference with the African Union on financial aspects of our relationship in preparation of the African Union-European Union summit. We are going to try to solve the problems of Mercosur, which is frozen because of what Brazil is doing in the Amazon.
When we say that our priority is to create a more global Europe, it’s to bring the European Union back to the centre of issues that our planet is facing, which means that the want to be part of global solutions that we need to find.
The next Portuguese presidency will take place in 2034. What do you think the EU will look like then?
It’s very difficult [to say]. I believe that we will have to cope with more challenges, some foreseeable, some unexpected. Every time we have had to cope with challenges from abroad, we’ve showed that we are able to unite. Sometimes the process is difficult but, at the end of the day, the decision-making process is there, and we take a step forward.
So, in 2034, I see a completely different world, but the basic values of the European Union will be the same. Its fingerprint in world affairs is going to be necessary to come up, together with others, with solutions that 2034 will demand.
Artigo de Cordula Schnuer
Foto de Matic Zorman