Portugal summons US ambassador over Lajes dismissals

The United States ambassador to Portugal, Robert Sherman, is reported to have been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday following news that the Americans were jumping the gun at the threatened Azores airbase of Lajes, on Terceira Island, and moving forwards with mass lay-offs ahead of schedule.

Relations between the two countries suffered a diplomatic setback in January when the Americans announced they would be radically scaling back military operations throughout Europe. In Lajes, where roughly 700 Portuguese are employed, this would mean the eventual loss of almost 500 jobs.

The calendar for lay-offs and other ins and outs of the process is due to be discussed later this summer – but on Monday authorities representing workers at the base started receiving letters warning of a looming November deadline.

According to national media, Lajes’ US command itemised a list of 455 jobs “to be extinguished”, and asked entities for their opinions – to be handed in by May 13.

Since then, three information sessions have been held for staff at the base, with Col. Martin Rothrock telling all those querying the sudden moving forwards by the US authorities that it was a case of his “following orders from above”.

As Observador website explained, Rothrock asked Portuguese workers to “think about the possibility of friendly (contract) termination”.

He also talked about “the possibility of some workers being posted to other countries”.

But the bottom line, he stressed, was that if “reduction objectives” (this year thought to involve shedding 378 jobs) were not achieved, the US “would advance with dismissal processes from November 1”.
It was news that yet again flew in the face of diplomatic efforts behind the scenes.

Portuguese officials believed nothing would change until the extraordinary meeting of the permanent bilateral commission, scheduled for June 15 – and this is what was reiterated at Wednesday’s meeting with Robert Sherman.

According to Observador website, Portugal “demanded that all proceedings” taken by the Americans so far be “cancelled” until the key meeting.

Curiously, nothing more was revealed, and Robert Sherman appears not to have made any public statement following his summons.

When the Americans announced in January that they would be pulling two-thirds of their military out of Lajes, president of the government of Azores Vasco Cordeiro described the decision as a “monumental slap in the face” that would signal a “1.5% reduction in GDP for the Azores as a whole”.

Azorean concerns stem from the fact that although the airbase ‘only’ directly employs 700 Portuguese, many more rely on it for their livelihoods.

Mass-layoffs and a general withdrawal of staff would thus plunge Terceira into “a whole new set of economic problems”.

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