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EU presidency: Portugal accused of splurging thousands for events that may only ever be virtual

Online newspaper POLITICO has spent over 1,500 words showing up Portugal’s lavish spending since assuming the European Presidency in January.

The paper accuses the government of splurging thousands of euros on drinks, equipment – even clothes – “for events that are unlikely to be held in person” because of the ongoing pandemic.

The presidency spent €260,591 to equip a press centre in Lisbon – “even though the presidency’s press briefings are being held online and foreign journalists aren’t traveling to the Portuguese capital”. It agreed to pay a wine company €35,785 for drinks “at a time when few people are gathering. And it signed a €39,780 contract to purchase 360 shirts and 180 suits “at  a time when many people are working from home”. 

Watchog groups have told POLITICO that the presidency has signed corporate sponsorships with “various companies including some that appear to go against signature EU policies, and one that is known as a soft-landing pad for Portuguese politicians” (this being a reference to “an agreement with Portuguese pulp and paper giant The Navigator Company”).

According to the article, Covid-19 threatens to transform Portugal’s ‘moment in the EU spotlight’ into a ‘ghost presidency’ – but that hasn’t stopped Lisbon from what looks like wildly unnecessary spending. Indeed, says POLITICO, it has ‘raised eyebrows’ “within the Brussels bubble” which is well-used to “rotating presidency swag”.

Said Susana Coroado of Transparência and Integridade, the Portuguese wing of Transparency International: “The presidency seems to be less about work meetings and more about selling Portugal to the outside world”.

The Portuguese presidency spokesperson Alexandra Carreira justified the expenses saying they are simply “adequate and timely preparations” for the potential of in-person meetings in a few months’ time.

But POLITICO suggests the situation is more a case of taking advantage of ‘a rare moment to shine’.

National governments of “often forgotten EU countries” “usually try to use the opportunity to play to their home audiences and hype their own importance by hosting grand events that lure international leaders to their countries”.

The article could have stopped there, but it went on: “To observers, one of the more baffling decisions the presidency made was spending hundreds of thousands of euros furnishing the press center in Lisbon, a city that has experienced a dramatic rise in new coronavirus cases this year.

“The public project was entrusted to a company that hasn’t obtained a public contract since 2011, and whose previous experience in public sector contracts involved organizing entertainment for village festivals.

“Lisbon-based journalists who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity described the press center as a “ghost town.”

As to the “questionable sponsorships”, POLITICO highlighted deals with Portuguese beverage companies, Delta Cafés and soft-drink group Sumol + Compal – and the agreement with The Navigator Company.

“At a moment when Brussels is rolling out the EU Green Deal, Farm to Fork strategy and the EU Cancer Plan, Suzy Sumner, campaigner for the European consumer organization Foodwatch, said Portugal was wrong to use its presidency to actively promote “sugar-filled soft drinks” that have “direct effects on health and the environment.”

“Campaigners have been even more disturbed by the deal with Navigator, a company that last year received a €27.5-million loan from the European Investment Bank, and that has historically been known to serve as a revolving door for Portuguese politicians”

“Similarly, Portuguese climate justice organization Climáximo‘s Manuel Araújo questioned why the presidency would link itself to a company whose vast eucalyptus plantations have been linked to deadly forest fires in Portugal and land grabs in Mozambique”.

All in all, it’s a savage appraisal of the Portuguese government’s decision-making. Susana Coroado even got the opportunity to suggest “the government is behaving like the orchestra on the Titanic, determined to put on five-star events even when it’s clear that they shouldn’t be going on”.

In-person meetings in January ended with three ministers quarantined – yet the government insists that the social summit in Porto in May will be held with multiple dignitaries , as well as the EU/ India summit, already billed as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the six-month presidency that ends in June.

Concluded Susana Coroado: ““Last year, we were very offended when some northern countries said that they were reluctant to give us (EU bazooka) money because we were going to misuse the funds… But when (the presidency) does things like this, it’s normal that others express skepticism towards us.”

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natasha.donn@algarveresident.com