When the Portuguese look at the Western Balkans they know that, naturally, the time will come when those countries will finally belong to the EU, as this a quite normal and suitable path – Maria Virgínia Mendes Da Silva Pina
The Portuguese ambassador comes from a country which from a historical perspective – as she says – has been focused more on cooperation with neighbours that it is connected to via the Atlantic Ocean than on the Balkan Peninsula. However, H.E. Maria Virgínia Mendes Da Silva Pina says that she feels as though she’s already been adopted in her new environment in Belgrade! “The two countries have excellent political relations, which can be seen in the way we mutually support our international candidacies,” she says in this interview for CorD Magazine, adding that there is plenty of room for improvement, especially of economic relations, in areas such as digital transformation, the environment, energy or E-government. Also contributing to the strengthening of that cooperation is Serbia’s European integration progress, which Portugal will observe more carefully as of 1st January 2021, when the country takes over the presidency of the European Union.
Your Excellency, Portugal is holding the Presidency of the European Union for the next six months, as of 1st January 2021. What have been defined as Lisbon’s priorities?
Portugal has five priorities for its Presidency: Europe’s resilience, based on economic recovery, the reinforcement of social cohesion and respect for both European values and the Rule of Law, especially dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic; Social Europe, in which we will press for a political thrust regarding the Action Plan to implement the European Pillar on Social Rights; Green Europe, which reflects the importance of addressing climate change; Digital Europe, an area where Portugal has showed its strengths and goes beyond just the economy, reaching areas such as digital education and digital democracy; and finally Global Europe, as Portugal is quite keen on global dialogue and wishes to assert that the EU can have a dialogue with all the main geopolitical actors, including the nations of Africa and Latin America. All of aforementioned priorities have the common idea of striving for Europe’s recovery, especially after the pandemic, through the European Social Model and the balancing of social and economic dimensions.
Portugal had already planned to hold the Social Summit in Porto in May 2021, as the flagship event of our Presidency, so the pandemic will only give further relevance to this event and the matters it will address
Portugal was among a large number of EU member states that ended 2020 under lockdown, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To what extent have these new circumstances impacted on Portugal’s plans for its EU presidency?
Portugal had already planned to hold the Social Summit in Porto in May 2021, as the flagship event of our Presidency, so the pandemic will only give further relevance to this event and the matters it will address. We hope that the sanitary situation will allow it to proceed as planned, but we are prepared for format changes that do not prevent us from achieving our goal. In fact, this Summit has an ambitious agenda, as I explained in the previous question, and will consist of two separate but intertwined events: a conference with European institutions, social partners and academic institutions; and an informal European Council that will address social matters.
Concerning the rest of the programme, despite the obstacles caused by the pandemic, which will still surely affect some physical events planned for the first half of the semester, we will be also prepared to shift to virtual venues whenever needed. We will nevertheless try to turn all the challenges into opportunities.
Countries worldwide are already confirming major economic consequences of the pandemic. How hard has the Portuguese economy been hit, given that a significant share of your country’s income is ordinarily generated through tourism?
The Portuguese economy is undergoing a difficult time, because – as you mentioned – tourism is particularly important. Over the past decade we’ve managed to gain a welldeserved reputation as an exquisite tourist destination and we cannot wait to return to normal. As for the economic downturn, we are putting in place the necessary measures to prevent more dire consequences for the economy, bearing in mind that we must balance them with the need to protect the health of our citizens. This is another feature of the importance of European solidarity, as the financial relief mechanisms that were thought out can really help mitigate the consequences of the pandemic on the economy.
We are putting in place the necessary measures to prevent more dire consequences for the economy, bearing in mind that we must balance them with the need to protect the health of our citizens
Are you concerned about new terrorist attacks in European cities?
Europe faces several challenges and some of them pose an existential threat to our way of life, with fundamentalism, which usually reveals itself with abominable terrorist attacks, being at the top of our worries. We therefore need a strong and resolute response to this scourge, but one that does not undermine either our civil liberties or our record of tolerance and respect.
Crisis situations like the one that we’re currently witnessing often result in the strengthening of extremism. Media reported last summer on the statement of Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declaring “zero tolerance” for racism. How did this situation arise and why did the president feel a need to react?
Portugal has been a safe haven when it comes to racist incidents and extremist messages, but this does not mean that we, as a society, are not susceptible to deplorable incidents that need to be firmly decried. This was what happened last summer, when three female Members of Parliament who have African ancestors and are anti-racist activists had their lives threatened by anonymous messages in a display of farright extremism. As you can understand, this unprecedented situation caused an uproar and President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa thought it would be precautionary to state, in a very assertive way, that similar situations would not be tolerated. We need to raise public conscience and awareness that this type of behaviour must face “zero tolerance”.
During a recent conversation with Serbian officials you announced the additional engagement of Portugal, during its EU presidency, in the area of Serbia’s European integration. Considering that this process slowed down significantly in 2019 and 2020, do you think it can be accelerated during this time of great challenges for the EU itself?
Serbia’s European Integration process is itself challenging, but I am confident that, if Serbia shows signs of willingness to move forward and do the necessary reforms, always taking into account the recommendations contained in the Progress Reports, including in the area of the Rule of Law, which highlight Serbia strengths and weaknesses, the process can evolve and the expectations of both parties can be met. Serbia witnesses the advantages that close cooperation with the EU brings every day and I am sure it has understood that fulfilling the criteria for accession will only improve its citizens’ quality of life and perspectives.
Therefore I believe that, despite all the obstacles, Serbia acknowledges the benefit it brings to Europe and that it is a country that the EU will welcome into its midst. I therefore think that, despite the challenges the EU is experiencing, Serbia is part of Europe and is essential for the stabilisation of the Western Balkans. If there is a will, there is a way.
What is the stance of Portuguese citizens regarding the enlargement of the EU to encompass the countries of the Western Balkans? What kind of image does the region have in the eyes of the Portuguese?
Due to our geographical situation, it is true that for a very long time we preferred to look across the Atlantic Ocean rather than looking to Europe. In one generation’s time, we made a complete shift that finally, and fully, encompassed Europe, in which our accession to the then EEC made an enormous difference. This ensures that we now look at this geopolitical region as a fully-fledged stakeholder that takes an interest in all of its parts, albeit some closer than others. This being said, the enlargements of the EU have always been somewhat natural for us, as we are also part of that enlargement process. Therefore, When the Portuguese look at the Western Balkans they know that, naturally, the time will come when those countries will finally belong to the EU, as this aprogress? quite normal and suitable path.
In order to develop other institutional bonds that can contribute to the fostering of better relations between Portugal and Serbia, I think it would be a very interesting base for work if the most direct representatives of the people of both countries could have a forum to interact
You arrived in Serbia during the summer of 2019. What is your impression so far when it comes to bilateral relations between our two countries, and in which areas do you see room for progress?
I have to say that I feel at home in Serbia. You welcomed me in such a way that I feel as though you adopted me. Our two countries have excellent political relations, which can be seen, for instance, in the way that we mutually support our international candidacies. However, there is great room to improve, especially our economic relations. I am keen on improving cooperation in areas such as digital transformation, the environment, energy or E-government.
Those are areas in which Portugal has great expertise and skills, with Portuguese companies willing to invest and come to Serbia.
The strengthening of cooperation through parliamentary friendship groups was proposed during your recent meeting with Serbian National Assembly Speaker Ivica Dačić. How do you see that idea?
Portugal prides itself on its representative democracy, which has gone through several challenges but proved itself to be quite resilient. Our Parliament (“Assembleia da República”) represents the 10 million Portuguese citizens who live inside our borders and the five million members of the Portuguese diaspora. In order to develop other institutional bonds that can contribute to the fostering of better relations between Portugal and Serbia, I think it would be a very interesting base for work if the most direct representatives of the people of both countries could have a forum to interact.
Will there be a continuation of the cooperation between Portugal and Serbia that has already successfully connected universities and scientific institutions?
Definitely! Our two countries can only benefit from strengthening our relations. The flow of people between Portugal and Serbia will, in a very natural way, continue to increase and results in other connections surfacing outside the academic world, where it has delivered quite interesting results and can deliver even more. In our Consular Section we see new applications almost every week from Serbian students wanting to study for longer periods in Portugal in the most diverse areas.
With a continuous influx and exchanges of experience, it is only natural that those connections, and the mutual discoveries that they allow, will find different ways to develop in other areas, such as the arts or the economy. They will then continue to spillover into everyday life, so, yes, there is a vast field of cooperation that can be explored and deserves that. During my tenure here I will do my best to foster all the opportunities that exist.
We need a strong and resolute responseto this scourge, but one that does notundermine either our civil liberties or ourrecord of tolerance and respect
|EU INTEGRATION |
I believe that, despite all the obstacles, Serbia acknowledges the benefit it brings to Europe and that it is a country that the EU will welcome into its midst
In our Consular Section we see new applications almost every week from Serbian students wanting to study for longer periods in Portugal in the most diverse areas