Ahead of EU presidency, Portuguese say reaching budget deal is ‘fundamental’

Portugal's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias.

Portugal's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias. [EPA-EFE/JAVIER LIZON / POOL]

Reaching a solution for the deadlocked EU budget between all EU countries as soon as possible is a ‘fundamental issue’, the forthcoming Portuguese presidency of the EU has said, warning that failure to do so would further undermine citizens’ trust in the bloc.

Portugal is set to take over the presidency of the EU Council from Germany in January.

Speaking at a conference on 26 November, hosted by the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA) alongside the Portuguese Institute of International Relations, Ana Paula Zacarias, Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, noted that the current impasse in budget negotiations could start having a long-term detrimental effect on how citizens view the EU’s efficacy in times of crisis.

“It’s going to be very difficult to convince European citizens that indeed, the union is functioning because nobody understands that we have been negotiating this financial programme since 2018,” Zacarias said as part of a keynote speech at last week’s event.

Following intense negotiations between EU member states earlier this year, a provisional text was settled upon for the bloc’s €1.81 trillion long-term budget and recovery fund, to which all nations agreed.

The European Parliament then adopted its position, insisting on aligning the dispensation of EU funds with a conditionality regime for the rule of law, to which the EU Council managed to find common ground, apart from Hungary and Poland.

The two nations lament the rule conditionality, which had been included to ensure that certain member states who have been accused of abuses in these areas previously, most notably Hungary and Poland, would cease from doing so in the future.

Budapest and Warsaw’s public opposition to the plans most recently surfaced in a counter-proposal signed by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki

“Everything has stopped again because there is a problem with two of our member states. We absolutely need to find a solution. This is a fundamental issue,” Zacarias said, adding that it was an urgent priority for all EU member states to chart a budget agreement, a point of view echoed in a series of recommendations produced by TESPA for the event.

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Portuguese Presidency’s priorities

More broadly, Zacarias also highlighted a series of pressing issues that the Portuguese presidency would have to contend with in the first half of 2021. In this vein, she highlighted priorities across three pillars including sustainability, innovation, and fostering more of a social Europe.

In the sustainability space, in the context of objectives laid out in the EU Green deal for the continent to become carbon neutral by 2050, Portugal would like to foster investment in initiatives such as the production of green hydrogen and sustainable transport, including in cultivating better railway links across the bloc.

The Presidency will also hone in on priorities in the sustainability of the oceans and forest management, Zacarias said.

In terms of digital, Zacarias highlighted the forthcoming ‘Digital Compass’ targets for 2030 and noted that making the most out of the bloc’s industrial data, as well as improving connectivity across rural areas, were also priorities. Portugal also aims to put forward a ‘Charter of Digital Rights’ as part of its leadership of the Council of the EU.

In terms of fostering a ‘social Europe,’ the Portuguese presidency hopes that its ‘hallmark’ will be a steadfast commitment to the European pillar for social rights in a post-COVID context, meaning that those who have suffered economic or vocational loss as a result of the pandemic would be able to get back on their feet and find opportunities in the market once again.

Strategic autonomy in defence

Elsewhere as part of last week’s conference, France’s Clément Beaune, minister of state for European Affairs, also noted how the bloc had an opportunity to chart its ‘strategic autonomy’ in related areas, with regards to its geopolitical relations with the rest of the world. This was most pronounced, Beaune said, in the field of security and defense.

“We have to also recognise and have in mind that the US itself…is expecting us to be more able to act as Europeans, or to have some frameworks of action which are independent [from the US],” Beaune said.

The EU, he added, should seek to adopt a unified approach in financing for its defensive forces, have a ‘common means of action’ in the field of defence operation, and also have more commonality between EU member states in terms of threat analysis efforts.

One pressing area for Baune in the context of the need for urgent European autonomy is in the field of cybersecurity.

“Will we ask the US to always be our ‘protector’ in terms of having expertise, having counteractions in cybersecurity? I don’t think so,” he said.

“And I think they will quite legitimately say, ‘but why don’t you do it yourself?’ And ‘why don’t you protect yourself your own electoral processes – you have the technical expertise and the financial means to do it,’ And they are right,” Beaune added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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