The Resident: Tell us a bit about your and the embassy’s activities since we last met one year ago …
Ambassador: The discussions over the EU budget were a major focus of our activities with the Portuguese government last autumn.
On the commercial side, we have had a pretty active year, organising a number of events, particularly concentrating on the environment and the potential for collaboration between Portugal and the UK over areas such as wave energy. It was particularly satisfying to know that the first commercial wave energy plant is going to be built as a result of British-Portuguese collaboration in northern Portugal.
More generally, we have had a very successful couple of years in terms of exports from the UK to Portugal, which rose by eight per cent in 2004 and by five per cent last year. So, against a background of a rather difficult economic situation in Portugal, that’s been a very pleasing result. And we like to think that some of our activity in the embassy has contributed to that.
The number of British visitors to Portugal continues to rise and that, inevitably, brings a degree of work for the embassy. Although we don’t have access to the exact figures, I also suspect the number of British residents in Portugal has risen.
T.R: Going back to the discussions about the EU budget … EU Commission President Durão Barroso and Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates had meetings with Blair, calling for a reduction in the British rebate last autumn. Blair was at first reluctant to reduce the rebate, but, in the end, Britain gave up 20 per cent of it. Do you think Britain’s argument with the EU damaged its reputation? Do you think Britain seemed stingy or mean as a consequence?
A: I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t think the facts bear that out. We remain a major contributor to the EU budget. We have always said we would pay, in full, our share of the costs of enlargement. And that’s what the agreement provided for. But, at the same time, we always made it clear that the rebate is in place to correct fundamental distortions in the budget. Until those are corrected, there can be no question of giving up the British rebate. And that position was respected. Some other states disagreed with the position, but it is well understood that that is where we are in terms of the future of the EU. One of the important elements in the agreement of the budget at the end of last year was the provision for a fundamental review of budgetary expenditure. That’s going to be a major focus of our policy over the next two or three years, to ensure that the EU really does make progress on this issue.
T.R: When the next round of EU expenditure is agreed, covering 2013 onwards, Portugal’s share of EU structural funds is likely to be reduced. Do you think that there’s a tremendous anxiety that Portugal’s economic performance will suffer as a consequence?
A: I see it the other way. The degree to which countries receive structural funds is dependent on their relative economic prosperity in comparison with the EU average. A key aim of cohesion and structural spending is to bring countries closer to the EU average. Inevitably, if those policies are successful, countries receive less as they become more prosperous. I think it’s difficult to predict the shape of the EU budget in six or seven years’ time. If, by then, Portugal were to receive less funds, that would be a symptom of success and not necessarily something to worry about.
T.R: Do you see Portugal as a net contributor to the EU budget one day?
A: Spain, for example, is already very close to approaching the EU average. Portugal is some way behind. But, if structural and cohesion funds expenditure is successful, then Portugal’s prosperity compared to the EU average should increase as a consequence.
T.R: Perhaps it’s still true to say that not enough British people in Portugal knew a great deal about the general election, the presidential race and even the local elections (in which they were eligible to vote). Can voting rights be extended to increase their interest?
A: Well, extension of voting rights to national elections is not on the agenda at the moment, but perhaps not impossible over time. But that is not necessarily going, in itself, to help integrate people if there is still a fundamental information gap. The key to that has to be language. The Resident does a brilliant job of keeping people informed about developments in Portugal. But, in the end, there is no substitute for people being able to read Portuguese newspapers, watch local television and also engage with Portuguese people to find out what they are thinking. That seems to me to be the key to people having a greater understanding of the country in which they live. Having said that, my impression is that a lot of British people already speak the language very well.
T.R: When we met last time (February 2005), we were hoping for a period of stability in Portugal after the election of José Sócrates as socialist Prime Minister. Now, one year on, we have a socialist Prime Minister who will be working with a newly elected right-wing president (Cavaco Silva). Do you think we are in for a period of uneasy cohabitation that will undermine Portugal’s stability in some way?
A: No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Portugal established the institutions of a stable democracy very quickly after the revolution. I think the degree of stability is a credit to the politicians who were involved in the process. So the system is solid. More generally, there have been many examples in recent years in Europe where a President from one political party and the Prime Minister from another tradition have co-operated well. If you look at the policies of the two major parties in Portugal – the PSD (Social Democrats) and the PS (Socialists) – there’s a lot of common ground. My impression of the Prime Minister and the new President, from my conversations with them, is that they share a similar approach to a lot of the problems facing the country.
T.R: Do you have regular meetings with the Prime Minister and the President?
A: Prime Ministers and Presidents tend to be fairly busy people. I wouldn’t say I have regular meetings with them, but I do see them from time to time.
T.R: It’s been 20 years since Portugal joined the EU. It was then the poorest country in the EU and the poorest in Western Europe. Twenty years later, it’s still the poorest country in Western Europe. Would you like to pinpoint any change that you think should happen to boost the Portuguese economy?
A: These things are relative. When Portugal joined the EU, its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was about half the EU average. Now it’s about 70 per cent of the GDP average. Although, 20 years later, Portugal is still at the bottom of the league table of the original 15 members, this disguises the fact that there has been considerable progress.
I find it difficult to predict how things will develop over the next few years. But, if structural and cohesion funds are accompanied by a determination to pursue the economic policies that create growth, then I would be surprised if Portugal wasn’t in a better economic position in six years’ time.
T.R: I remember you said in our last interview that you wanted to focus on international crime and fraud. Has there been any significant progress on this?
A: Co-operation between our countries is close. But, as elsewhere in Europe, we face an increasing problem. For example, there were 18 tonnes of cocaine seized by Portuguese police last year. But, there have already been 13 tonnes of cocaine seized in the first six weeks of this year. That’s an indication of a problem that isn’t going to go away. It’s going to become more important that European countries collaborate very closely, in political terms but also in operational terms.
T.R: How many Portuguese workers are there in the UK?
A: We don’t have accurate figures because people don’t register and travel freely. I have heard figures – but have no way of confirming them – that suggest that there may be as many as 300,000 people of Portuguese origin in the UK. That is a figure used by the Portuguese Embassy in London. What I do think is interesting is the way the Portuguese community has changed, from being the traditional community – which still exists – of people very much engaged in shops, restaurants and the service industries, to a far more varied community which includes Portuguese bankers, nurses and doctors.
T.R: And how many English are there in Portugal?
A: We don’t know for sure but somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 is the best estimate we have. And that would probably be a mixture of people who live here permanently and also property owners in the Algarve who spend part of the year here.
So far, as visitors are concerned, the numbers are much higher. For example, British visitors account for 60 per cent of the total air movement in and out of Faro Airport. That’s about 2.7 million inward and outward movements every year. Of course, Faro doesn’t just serve Portugal – it also serves parts of southern Spain. So it’s very difficult to come up with a figure for overall visitors. But there are probably well over a million British visitors to the Algarve every year and another million who visit other parts of Portugal.
T.R: Have there been significant developments in tourism?
A: I think British and other tourists have certainly discovered Lisbon. When I was here before, 15 years ago, visitors to Lisbon outside of the summer season were comparatively rare. But now, when you go to Belém on any weekend during the year, there are lines of coaches. So Lisbon is very much on the weekend break circuit. Of course, that applies to a lot of other European cities as well.
T.R: I want to ask you something about your wider role as Ambassador. There’s been a lot about the Holocaust in the news recently. The Iranian ambassador to Portugal has gone on record as expressing doubts about the Holocaust. Would you, for example, exercise your influence in some way to convey your displeasure at his comments?
A: I haven’t met him since he made those comments. But the Iranian government and the Iranian government’s representatives are well aware of the British government’s views on these and a range of issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those concerns are conveyed in Tehran, in London and in international organisations, particularly in the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Authority).
T.R: Is it the Ambassador’s role to defend broadly the position of his or her government, such as the foreign affairs stance?
A: I wouldn’t use the word ‘defend’. I think it’s one of my jobs to explain and promote the British government’s foreign and European policy to the Portuguese people and government, and to build co-operation with the Portuguese authorities.
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