Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Portuguese Presidency of the European Union

Paulo Sande, Visiting Professor at the Institute for Political Studies at the Portuguese Catholic University

What it does actually and what it is there for

Firstly and strictly speaking it means holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), or of the Council. This is the institution that represents the governments of the Member States (MS) and its main competences are the adoption of legal acts and the coordination of European policies. The Council is not to be mistaken with the European Council, an institution formed by the heads of state and government, whose function is to define European priorities and the general political guidelines.

Since the beginning of the integration process, the Presidency of the Council has been held on the basis of equal rotation between MS for a period of six months (it all started with Belgium, in 1958). The presidency has a dual political and administrative function, e.g. the organization and management of the workings of the relevant heads of the Council.

During the semester, the relevant country chairs the Council meetings, at all levels and structures, except as regards foreign affairs (which is chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, currently the Spanish Josep Borrell); receives the work in progress from the country that preceded it and passes it on then to the next country holding this position; and is in charge of advancing the different dossiers under discussion, in line with the program of the trio of presidencies (see below) and its agenda.

The Lisbon Treaty established a new organization based on the joint work of three countries that consecutively hold office and establish an 18-month program. We start by analysing the program under the responsibility of the trio formed by Portugal, Germany (previous presidency) and Slovenia (next).

Strategic agenda for Europe – from 1 July 2020 to 31 December 2021

The first conclusion points to the central role the COVID-19 pandemic plays in the program for the three semesters starting in mid-2020. The introduction document summarizes this clearly:

“The three presidencies will do everything to strengthen Europe’s resilience, to protect its citizens and to overcome the crisis, while preserving European values and ways of life.” The health crisis and the economic crisis are both yet to be solved.

The program is based on the principles of the roadmap for recovery of April 22, 2020, based on solidarity, cohesion and convergence in order to ensure a flexible, agile and evolutionary recovery, inclusive and respecting the European values and Rule of law. At its core, the European economic model for the future focus first and foremost in redressing and deepening the internal market, strongly affected by the pandemic; the continuation of green and digital transitions, assist SMEs and start-ups, the creation of resilient infrastructures, particularly in healthcare, and the production of strategic products to reduce European dependence. And it is worth mentioning the implementation of an Energy Union focused on sustainability and the transition to climate neutrality, a fundamental asset in the recovery efforts.

In this context, the concepts of digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy of the European Union lie at the core and rest on a dynamic industrial policy. The following statement, contained in the program, is worth highlighting: “digital transformation is something that will shape day-to-day life in Europe, but it is also something that Europe can shape”.

Recovery, however, depends on an unprecedented investment, based on common goals and focused on relevant needs. The program refers to a Recovery Fund (RF) linked to the Union’s multiannual financial framework (MFF), first a promise and largely achieved in July. Both the RF, in the form of a Recovery and Resilience Program, and the MFF, were only unlocked in December, but their volume and nature – a solidary loan, based on a bond launch backed by the European budget – represent in itself a revolution of huge impact and meaning.

The program also underlines the global size of the EU and focuses on designing and implementing a response to the pandemic through multilateralism and an international order based on the rule of law. At a time of an American administration still hostile to this idea, the goal was rather something to hope for than an attainable goal; the expectation, however, is that there will be changes which may bring about fruitful and responsible multilateralism.

Internally, and in line with the provisions of the roadmap for recovery, the development of the Union’s governance system is due to materialise, making it more resilient, effective and efficient, always mindful of the fundamental values.

The program covers the implementation of the European pillar of social rights, paving the way to fair and social Europe, including the hosting of a European Social Summit in May 2021, under the Portuguese presidency. Expectations are high as regards the Conference on the Future of Europe, despite the difficulties in figuring out the best way forward and so that this does become another meeting of inconsequential wills, in a time of (still) pandemic and pragmatism when good intentions are simply not enough.

The program also addresses the future relationship with the United Kingdom. At the time of its approval, it was still possible to extend the deadline for an agreement – this possibility expired at the end of June -, in order to try to establish a relationship based on the balance of rights and obligations and the assurance of a level playing field.

The document addresses many other issues: the protection of the freedoms of European citizens, including a rule of law mechanism; strengthening cultural equality and diversity; a new migration pact and an effective European Asylum System; protection of external borders, allowing the Schengen area to work again; research systems with a strong digital base in order to speed up innovation for growth and the improvement of personal skills, education and health; Horizonte Europa and Erasmus +; and the promotion of European interests and values in the world. A special word for the environment, in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, and the relevance attributed to the Commission’s New Plan of Action to the Circular Economy.

This program stretches for many years and we all know it’s impossible to complete in 18 months, let alone in a semester.

Between the German and the Portuguese presidencies

A German presidency is a German presidency, one of the two main traditional drivers of European integration, which we always expect to be effective and efficient.

This year, however, everything became more difficult. The pandemic prevented many of Germany’s goals from being achieved, as Angela Merkel herself acknowledged a few days ago. Even so, several results are to mark this first semester of the German-Portuguese-Slovenian trio. Two are particularly relevant:

– The approval, in July, and the unlocking, in December, of the Recovery Fund, associated with the rule of law conditionality regulation. Europe will have the resources to help its most deprived citizens, through an unprecedented model of debt underwriting backed by the Union budget, the ultimate and powerful display of European solidarity.

– The climate transition, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas by 2030 and due to move from 40 to 55% (compared to 1990). A historic, ambitious decision, for which, Merkel said, “it was worth losing a night’s sleep”.

But there have been many unfinished dossiers, unmade decisions and unachieved progresses. This is the case of migrations / refugees for which the Commission has a pending proposal. The relationship with Turkey, in its conflict with two Member States, Greece and Cyprus, was also unresolved, after the timid position taken by the European Council in December which proved disappointing (and which did not come as a surprise).

And now, Portugal?

Several objectives contained in the trio’s plan have now become Portuguese concerns. And Portugal will certainly leave unfinished dossiers for the Slovenian presidency.

What is the program of the Portuguese presidency and its goals? The answer can be found on the website and in the presidency’s program (https: // There are five major priorities, aligned with the Union’s strategic agenda:

– European resilience, by increasing investment and the recovery of the economy (including implementing the MFF and RRP), and strengthening solidarity and values.

– Social Europe, with a view to improving the European social model and social cohesion; it is worth mentioning the May Social Summit as a preferred means to discuss the social dimension for the recovery of the economy, the digital and climate transition and the implementation of the European pillar of social rights.

– Green Europe is at the heart of the first major transition, promoting the ecological pact, the blue economy and energy and transport policies.

– Digital Europe, the other – and twin – transition, with the ambitious objective of promoting European leadership in the digital economy, while further developing the concept of digital democracy.

– And last but not least, global Europe. The major highlights will be multilateralism, the mechanisms for regulating globalization, the joint response to humanitarian crises and emergency situations, special attention to relations with Africa and the strengthening of relations with India (a Summit on these issues may be held this semester, if the pandemic will allow). At the heart of this global relationship lies the strategic relationship – see partnership – with the UK (if the agreement on future relationships allows it); and also transatlantic relations with the country which, according to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, is Europe’s main strategic partner – the United States.

Other issues and objectives of the German presidency still unresolved, given the recent circumstances, now fall on the Portuguese presidency: this is the case of migration, both from the perspective of refugees and economic migrants, an unresolved issue of enormous importance for Europe, difficult to solve, with increased attention to external borders and the role of European agencies, such as Frontex.

The remaining negotiations as regards Brexit will naturally be part of the Council’s agenda, and thus deserve de presidency’s attention. The same goes for the pandemic and the coordination of health policies, with vaccination in the forefront.

At the political level, the issue of insecurity and instability in the western Mediterranean and, at the external level, the start of the relationship with the new American administration, will be high on the European agenda (albeit shared between the presidency and the High Representative for Foreign Policy). And there is also terrorism, the threats to European security, populism and further topics that, considering that the agenda is based on plans and programs prepared in advance, will surely prevail if circumstances require.

It’s perhaps too many and complex objectives for a six-month period, largely aligned with the European agenda and the trio’s program. But it is also a fact that Portugal has already presided over the European Union three times.

Our diplomats, clerks, experts and officials have huge experience in managing complicated dossiers and the confidence of European institutions and decision-makers. These will certainly be very demanding six months, but Portugal will be able to make substantial progress when it comes to improve European integration and the lives of its citizens.

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