COVID-19 Tops List of Priorities for Portugal’s EU Presidency

As Portugal approaches the mid-point of its fourth term leading the European Union, it can reflect proudly on the successes of its previous terms. But this time, Lisbon’s ambassador to Washington acknowledges, the unrelenting coronavirus pandemic is making everything a little bit harder.Among his nation’s prior successes as holder of the rotating six-month presidency, Ambassador Domingos Fezas Vital cited a major amendment to the EU’s foundational documents, signed by the member states in December 2007.“This is why you call the treaty that governs the European Union A doctor performs an ultrasound scan on a patient in a COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at the Curry Cabral hospital in Lisbon, Portugal, Feb. 11, 2021.Fezas Vital said his country is grateful for the help it received from its EU neighbors during the last couple of months, when Portugal suffered greatly from COVID-19. Going forward, his nation aims to ensure that the union continues to add to the strength and resilience of its member states.“One of the most important events under the Portuguese presidency would be the ‘social summit’ that will be held in Lisbon in May” to ensure that no one is left behind by the rapid digital transitions that are reshaping the world, Fezas Vital added.Under Portugal’s presidency, which runs through June, the bloc will also turn its eyes toward the oceans with both environmental protection and economic development in mind.“Portugal has always been a very vocal country on the importance of the oceans,” Fezas Vital said. “We think that it’s not possible to talk about the green transition without addressing the blue transition; we believe that the oceans play a very important role, as a mitigating factor [in combating global warming]. At the same time, harming the oceans will be a recipe to ensure that the fight against climate change will fail.”Under the Portuguese presidency, he said, “we’ll be discussing a new climate law, and the main objective of this climate law is to make sure that Europe becomes the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. So I would say this is a piece of legislation that is very high on our list of priorities.”The ambassador also stressed the importance, both to Portugal and the EU, of maintaining the strongest possible bond with the United States. “We share the same ocean, we share the same values,” he said. “For us, this is crucial.”A recent irritant in that relationship has been an investment treaty between the EU and China, which was agreed to in principle in December while Germany still held the EU presidency.Fezas Vital said it’s now up to the European Council and the European Parliament to decide how to proceed, comparing their role to that of the U.S. Congress.“It’s as if the executive branch of the U.S. government had negotiated Phase One of the trade deal with China, but it still had to be approved by Congress; that’s more or less what we’re facing in Europe,” he said. “Now people should be quite attentive to what’s going on in the European Parliament.”As Portugal assumed the EU presidency in January, a representative of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei — which is seeking to market its 5G equipment around the world — congratulated Lisbon and offered its help.Fezas Vital laughed at the notion of such help, saying the congratulations are appreciated, but Huawei has nothing to do with Portugal’s EU presidency. “There’s no involvement whatsoever of Huawei with the Portuguese presidency, none.”Even though EU-wide guidelines on 5G security, such as investment-screening mechanisms, are in place, it is ultimately up to individual member states to decide which company they will hire for 5G telecom services.Portugal itself, he said, is going through deliberations now. “A bidding process is going on, with several commercial entities involved, and a decision is expected by the end of March.”