Pressure on Portugal’s PM comes from all sides 

Portugal’s PM António Costa is facing intense behind-the-scenes pressure over and above the immediate demands of how to tackle the country’s raging epidemic of Covid-19.

Opposition leader Rui Rio – this far characteristically generous in his approach to the way the government has been handling the crisis – has come out and said the latest decision to close schools without any kind of distance learning strategy in place is tantamount to “misrule”, in his exact words “lack of government”.

The PM didn’t close schools earlier than he should have because he didn’t want to, accused Rio.  When he finally realised there was no other way than to cede to public opinion, he did so with absolutely no plan in sight – making a mockery of his claims that the government hadn’t wanted to close schools because this would jeopardise children’s precious academic progress.

It’s an argument that has seen a flurry of headlines suggesting the government is now busy defining a distance-learning strategy to put in place ‘if schools do not return in two weeks time’ (which seems almost certain…)

But in Europe too, António Costa is in hot water.

The case of the ‘lies sent to Brussels to ensure the appointment of Portugal’s prosecutor’ to the body that investigates corruption (click here) has been seemingly dropped by major national news outlets. Repercussions have been practically non-existent. The Minister of Justice who appears to have been complicit in the lies, has retained her post. António Costa has insisted he has “complete confidence in her”. But this has not been enough for one eloquent Spanish MEP Esteban Gonzaléz Pons – himself vice-chairman of the European People’s Party.

Mr Pons savaged the Portuguese government’s “behaviour” in a no-holds-barred attack in the European Parliament on Wednesday.

“The facts are irrefutable”, said the politician with a doctorate in law. “The Portuguese government lied to the European Council over the qualifications of one of its candidates for the European Prosecutor’s Office. The result of this lie led to a decision that should never have been taken. Sincerely I don’t know what is worse: justifying the situation as an administrative error or (trying to promote) the theory – defended by prime minister Costa – that this is an international anti-Portuguese conspiracy. These kinds of absurdities are typical of lesser countries, and shine a very dim light on the Portuguese presidency (of the Council of the European Union, ongoing currently until June)”.

Mr Pons stressed that the European Prosecutor’s role was to “fight against fraud and preserve the State of Law, which has now fallen under a shadow of suspicion”.

Two weeks ago, Mr Pons and other members of his party wrote to the president of the European Commission (Ursula Von der Leyen) calling for an investigation of this situation. “Today, here,  I repeat that request”, he stabbed at the air. “And I ask the Portuguese government to assume its responsibilities to the Portuguese people as well as Europeans. Lies should have consequences; a violation of the State of Law cannot go unpunished. Sr Costa, the Portuguese deserve an apology and the rest of us, not to be treated like idiots. Thank you very much…”

It was a clearly furious speech that rammed home the point that Portugal’s Socialist government is having a very difficult start to the year.

In Expresso this week there is a new ‘disgrace’ bubbling. António Costa “caught in wire taps” in an investigation into possible collusion over European subsidies for the development of a green hydrogen project in Portugal.

This is an investigation that all those pin-pointed as having been involved have sought to play down.

As Expresso stresses in this week’s edition, since the initial revelations in Sábado (click here), “there have been no developments on Portugal’s candidature within the hydrogen framework”.

The paper says it has contacted Mr Costa’s office and was told to “ignore” any wire-taps.

The PM’s office reportedly ‘thanked Expresso for its information’ – while the Attorney General’s Office has not responded to the paper’s questions.

Expresso’s story centres on the fact that Supreme Court judge António Piçarra ordered the recordings of conversations in which Mr Costa featured to be destroyed “because he considered they did not contain material or indications of any crime”. The Public Ministry, however, has appealed this decision. The outcome now is in the hands of another judge.

As has been widely reported, there is ‘open war’ currently between the Public Ministry and the office of the Attorney General which is sticking fast to a new directive that allows ‘the superior hierarchy’ to overrule the Public Ministry in any/ all high-profile cases that involve public figures (click here).

The Public Ministry is challenging the directive in court, claiming it threatens to return the country to “the dark days of opacity”.

[email protected]