21st Oct 2016

Proud Portugal leaves mixed EU presidency record

  • Portugal insisted that the EU Treaty be formally signed in Lisbon (Photo: Portuguese EU Presidency)

With Portugal at its chair, the EU completed two major projects – its new treaty and an expansion of its passport free zone to include nine new member states.

When small Portugal took over the EU's six-month rotating presidency from the bloc's largest member Germany on 1 July, it found itself faced with the tricky task of clearing the last political hurdles standing in the way of a new EU treaty.

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Berlin had used all its political weight to forge a deal on a detailed treaty blueprint at a high-drama summit in June, leaving only a limited number of mainly legal issues for the Portuguese to sort out.

But the outstanding issues - which included Polish voting demands and UK concerns on foreign policy - were seen as politically sensitive, with observers giving credit to Lisbon for successfully wrapping up the treaty talks at a summit in October without too much political fall-out.

Marco Incerti, analyst at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, said "this was a relatively easy task - they practically had the treaty in the bag", but he added that the Portuguese "fared well" in tackling the last treaty obstacles.

But Lisbon then caused a small PR fiasco out of the final signing ceremony of the document in December.

It insisted that the treaty should become the Lisbon Treaty and be formally signed in the Portuguese capital, undermining the green credentials of the EU as leaders flew to Lisbon on 13 December only to fly back later in the day for the traditional end-of-year summit in Brussels.

"This was a bit of a narrow approach," Mr Incerti told EUobserver "Instead of saying: this is a treaty for Europe and it doesn't matter where it is signed, they said: We are Portugal and this is the treaty of Lisbon."

Africa summit row

Another high-profile meeting under Portuguese chairmanship, the EU-Africa summit on 8-9 December, also stirred controversy.

Portugal, a former colonial power in Africa, had identified the first EU-Africa summit in seven years as one of the key priorities of its presidency, amid claims that Europe is losing influence on the continent to China.

But the meeting was overshadowed by the participation of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe who is accused of severe human rights abuses in his country, causing a public row at the summit between a group of rights-focused EU states and Mr Mugabe.

"Of course Mugabe was going to cause tension - but it really escalated", says an EU diplomat, adding that the summit also failed to reach an overall deal with African states on new trade rules.

Progress on policy issues

Despite Portugal's difficulties with high-profile meetings, EU experts and diplomats note that the presidency was more successful in channelling thorny policy files through the EU Council, member states' decision-making body.

Lisbon secured final agreement on the extension of the EU's borderless 'Schengen' zone to the new member states which joined the bloc in 2004, leading to jubilant scenes when the borders between old and new Europe were finally removed on 21 December.

It also forged a deal on the €3.4 billion Galileo satellite navigation project at a difficult November meeting dominated by a tough Spanish fight for hosting one of Galileo's ground control centres.

Other deals clinched under Portuguese chairmanship include postal liberalisation; an overhaul of EU-wide VAT rules; wine sector reform; a reduction of fisheries quotas; and the inclusion of airlines in the EU's emission trading scheme.

But it joined the long line of previous presidencies in failing to break a years-long dispute on working time legislation by linking it to another dispute on temporary work rules - a high-risk approach which some EU diplomats said made the matter only more complicated to solve.

'Making it up as we go'

Meanwhile, the leadership style of the Portuguese presidency was characterised not only by the smooth presentation skills of prime minister Jose Socrates but also by the sometimes ad hoc approach Portuguese officials of meetings in Brussels.

The VAT and Galileo deals, for example, only came about after lengthy and gruelling deliberations which saw the presidency regularly suspend the talks for "five minute breaks" which ended up being "breaks of more than an hour", some EU diplomats complained.

Portuguese lunches are said never to have started before two o'clock, while meeting agendas and speaking times for the EU-Africa summit were distributed only at the very last minute.

After the October summit in the Portuguese capital, EU leaders had to wait for hours at Lisbon airport before their planes could depart, since the presidency had not secured enough slots for all 26 government planes to jet off quickly.

"It was a bit à l'improviste , making it up as we go," according to one diplomat who however added "in the end, this did not stand in the way of some important results and in the end, it's the results that matter."

Portugal formally completes its presidency on 31 December with Slovenia taking over the reins on 1 January.

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