News in brief…

Key security test

England’s football friendly against Portugal on February 18 represents a major security test ahead of the Euro 2004 championship, according to the organisers. “Portugal-England is the big test in terms of fan security before the Euro championship; it will be a chance to test co-operation among all the security forces,” Euro 2004 director, António Laranjo, told the parliamentary committee overseeing preparations for the event.

England will face Portugal in the 30,000-seat Algarve stadium, which was inaugurated last month. Laranjo also revealed that the English Football Association had held numerous meetings with Portuguese authorities, before agreeing to the friendly, because it feared that violence on the part of some English fans could lead to sanctions from European football governing body UEFA. English teams were banned from overseas’ games by UEFA for five years, in 1985, after a riot by Liverpool FC fans at a stadium in Brussels killed 39 people during the Champions Cup final against Italy’s Juventus.

British police expect as many as 50,000 English football fans will descend on Portugal next summer for Euro 2004 and are hoping for better behaviour than they witnessed at the last Euro football finals, which were jointly hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000. Around 850 mostly English fans were arrested following hooliganism in the centre of Brussels and in nearby Charleroi, Belgium’s third biggest city. To avoid a repeat of such scenes, Lisbon has cancelled all police leave for the duration of the biggest sports event ever held in Portugal. In addition, the Portuguese government has set aside some 16.6 million euros to buy seven water cannon vehicles, batons, riot gear, pepper spray and other security equipment.

The authorities have also drawn up plans to operate round-the-clock courts, which will have the power to quickly extradite potential troublemakers, and is considering introducing an alcohol ban around stadiums on match days. British police, meanwhile, have issued banning orders against more than 1,800 people who have a record of violent behaviour at matches, which will require them to surrender their passports when England play abroad.

Portugal to privatise more services

Government ministers have been working on plans to privatise more public services in an effort to cut the budget deficit, according to Finance Minister Manuela Ferreira Leite. “More than 50 per cent of the chores done by public servants are done for themselves, and not for the public,” she explained. “A body of tasks is going to have to leave the public sphere and be handed over to the private sector.” She did not provide details on possible changes. The government has already taken steps to hand over some public health and education services to private businesses. A reform of the 700,000-strong public work-force is also set to take effect on January 1. The makeover includes more use of individual work contracts, decentralisation and the introduction of performance evaluations. Ferreira Leite said narrowing the budget deficit was only possible through structural reforms. Since Portugal breached the euro currency zone limit for its budget deficit in 2001, the government has laid off thousands of short-term workers as one of the means to keep the budget gap within the limit of three per cent of gross domestic product.

Public sector set to strike

January is likely to see a general strike by public sector workers, after a meeting of the union of the State Technical Board (STE). “We very much hope that a general strike will be called, in association with other trade unions, because it is vital to prepare a response to counter the attacks made by the government on our workers,” said the leader of the STE, Bettencourt Picanço. The union leader described 2003 as “a bleak year” and forecast that this year will not be better owing to the rise in inflation set against the drop in the buying power of salaries.According to Mr Picanço, recent alterations to pension entitlements and the freezing of public sector salaries were just some of the measures contributing to the growing insecurity felt by public sector workers. The union leader said the changes “moved the goalposts in the middle of the game and violated the expectations of workers”. He voiced his concern that the new method of calculating pensions will see them fall by 10 per cent in real terms, particularly penalising those who choose to retire before the age of 60.Mr Picanço also said he believed that President Jorge Sampaio considered the changes to be “unconstitutional”.

• The number of BSE cases in Portugal went up in 2003 to reach the levels seen during the ‘mad cow’ crisis, a situation that provides an added obstacle to the government in its attempt to have the EU ban on Portuguese beef lifted.

• Police have arrested 11 men and seized 400kg of high quality cocaine in Aveiro. The drugs were found on board a ship carrying a cargo of rice from Surinam. Meanwhile, in a separate operation, Portuguese police seized 812.5kg of cocaine on the Azores island of Flores, in one of the country’s biggest narcotics hauls this year. Two crew members aboard the boat – a 49-year-old Dutchman and a 20-year-old Belgian woman – were arrested. Both have previous convictions for drugs trafficking. The man has also been charged with trafficking human organs in the past.

• Although the EU’s effort to seal its first-ever constitution collapsed recently amid bitter infighting over sharing power as the bloc nearly doubles in size to 25 next year, EU leaders did resolve one long-burning issue – where to locate 10 new EU agencies. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi was famously quoted as insisting the Food Safety Agency should go to Parma, not Helsinki, because “the Finns don’t even know what prosciutto is”. Now Berlusconi has won that fight, while Helsinki gets the European Chemicals Agency. Lisbon has been chosen as the future location of the European Maritime Safety Agency. The agency, created in the aftermath of the Erika spillage, aims to enhance the overall maritime safety system in the EU, in order to reduce the risk of future accidents, marine pollution from ships sailing in its waters and the loss of human lives at sea. Others decided are:

– The European Police College, London

– Eurojust, the Hague

– European Maritime Safety Agency, Lisbon

– European Aviation Safety Agency, Cologne

– European Railway Agency to Lille and Valenciennes, France

– European Network and Information Security Agency, Greece

– European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Sweden

– A proposed fisheries agency, Spain

The actual cities for the last three will be determined by the national governments. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna will extend its mandate to become a Human Rights Agency. Luxembourg will get the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, proposed in the new constitution, if it is eventually passed. The 10 new countries joining next year will have priority for any new offices or agencies after that, the leaders said.

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