The presidency of the ghost council
Portugal’s presidency of the European Council got off to an uncertain start. The transition period for Brexit ended on January 1, and Portugal and Europe were plunged into a second lockdown, but despite being overshadowed by economic, political and sanitary problems, important work was achieved.
Text: Chris Graeme
It seemed like the quietest EU Council in the entire history of the European Union. Portugal, as the presiding country of the six-month rotating EU Council, might as well have been captaining the Marie Celeste. The press centre, which normally would have thousands of journalists from around the world, was often largely deserted, the custard tarts ‘left to the flies’, as the Portuguese say.
Policy fights over Brexit and just how strictly the new agreement would be carried out to the letter regarding the Northern Ireland border became bitter, frustrating, inflexible and seemingly vengeful. Embarrassing for Portugal since the UK is one of its largest markets in Europe, while an estimated 400,000 Portuguese first-, second- and third-generation nationals work and live there.
The entire event was largely overshadowed by which country was on the UK’s ‘green’ or ‘amber’ list, TV images of queues of British holidaymakers desperately yet grudgingly rushing to get home before the deadline when Portugal was removed for the ‘green’ list again. Then there were the images of maskless British soccer fans drunk and merry in Porto as the Covid-19 ‘R’ number began to inexorably rise in the Algarve and Lisbon. As both the UK and Germany removed Portugal from their safe-to-holiday lists, the EU’s online events in hallowed ‘Zoom’ halls echoed emptily or were drowned out by Portuguese tourist associations moaning about another lost summer… as well they might.
The whole Portuguese presidency got completely ignored by the general public. Ask any reasonably well-read person what this rotating presidency achieved and you’ll have hands in the air and blank stares.
But behind the scenes and the cacophony of ‘We’re all doomed, Mr. Mainwaring’, things did get done and progress was made. For starters, Portugal’s presidency celebrated a mega-deal on the bloc’s agricultural subsidies and the long-awaited coronavirus vaccine travel passport. which came into force on July 1.
Pedro Lourtie, Lisbon’s ambassador heading agriculture, health, digital and other policy files, said “things started to improve in the last three months, allowing us to have more physical meetings, including in-presence ministerial meetings”.
Negotiators were even able to find compromises to previously intractable problems on fiscal transparency and online tracking, which had been notoriously stubborn to solve for years.
On the Common Agricultural Policy, a deal was reached making subsidies greener and fairer, countries get more flexibility in handing out EU funds and there are new rules on protecting farm workers for the first time.
The bloc got its first Climate Law, which embodies the EU’s 2030 and 2050 climate goals in legislation after months of wrangling and disagreements.
The EU also rushed to get a bloc-wide digital coronavirus passport that shows a traveller got tested, vaccinated or has immunity following a coronavirus infection, in time for the holiday season. Member states also agreed to non-binding guidance on how travellers should be treated with such a certificate.
More cooperation was achieved on the Joint Health Technology Assessment, with the Portuguese presidency able to tie up loose ends on a difficult file that will boost cooperation between EU countries on improving medicine access and simplifying the application process for drug companies.
The EU Parliament and Council made a deal that will allow tech companies to detect and report child sexual abuse material online while complying with EU privacy laws, but does not allow the scanning of audio communications.
A deal was made for new EU rules on road charging that would link tolls to vehicles’ CO2 emissions, and shift charges from a time-based model to one based on distance travelled, which means drivers foot the bill for climate change impacts from driving.
On tax transparency, the Portuguese Presidency seemingly achieved the impossible by getting an agreement on a tax transparency deal that will require big companies to declare where in the EU they pay tax and make profits. Portugal managed to reach a legislative deal with the European Parliament.
Then there was the cookie law which had nothing to do with Sesame Street and legislating against cookie monsters from raiding our biscuit tins, but did break a four-year deadlock on the EU’s e-Privacy Regulation, by finding common ground and a position. The legislation, first introduced in 2017, aims to protect the privacy of online communications by regulating how telecom operates, tech companies and the online advertising industry use personal data. Victories include privacy settings for web browsers such as Google Chrome.
But there were areas of the Portuguese Presidency of the European Council that failed. For example, no progress was made on the next chair of the European Securities and Markets Authority, with a political stalemate between Germany and Italy.
On balance, the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU did move forward on many legislative dossiers, even some that had been blocked for years.
Pedro Lourtie sums up by saying, “What the Portuguese presidency managed to do in these six months was to take the various dossiers in all ministerial areas and push forward, and even approve many of them which had been in deadlock on the Council’s table for many years.”
Sadly, all the achievements and headway were largely drowned out by more immediate and news-catching events in Portugal and around the world concerning Covid-19, travel corridors and football. It rather reminds me of those clips in historical films in which the old king, surrounded by courtiers, is dying, and as he draws his last breath, the courtiers all rush out of the room to greet the new king — far more newsworthy and exciting after all —, leaving the grieving widow abandoned and alone, sobbing by the bedside.