The EU faces many challenges, but is capable of dealing with them if it follows the rules. Just like member states in the euro area need to adhere to budget criteria, the same approach needs to be used towards social issues and the rule of law. Only then will EU citizens see that the EU brings results. This was said by not just anyone but the Portuguese Secretary of State of European Affairs Margarida Marques. Portugal is a special case nowadays. The country went through a difficult bailout programme, which cost it much – high unemployment, strict tightening of belts, a political crisis, a threat by the EU of sanctions and suspension of European funds. The logical consequence would have been the emergence of strong anti-establishment parties, Euroscepticism, organising referendums, and all the rest from the current European political daily life.
Not in Portugal, however. It is now a full year in which the left-wing government, led by António Costa, has been sending out signals of stability, contrary to all expectations after two far-left parties joined the government. Forecasts back then were that this government will not last long, or that all the progress made as a result of the four-year bailout programme will be erased by Socialists and their approach against the policy of tightened belts. Instead, Portugal looks strictly set on meeting all commitments, to the point of doing everything necessary to avoid sanctions by the EU for systemic violations of EU fiscal rules.
During the summer, the Council asked the European Commission to implement sanctions on Spain and Portugal for violating fiscal discipline. The Commission, however, circumvented the rules by imposing zero sanctions. The threat was also removed of suspending Portugal’s European funds, because the government presented a convincing enough draft budget for the year 2017, showing that Lisbon is not veering too far from the fiscal commitments it made. In an interview for euinside, Margarida Marques explains that during the election campaign the government made several commitments that it adheres to strictly: respecting their national responsibilities, which means adhering to the agreements signed with political parties; respecting the Constitution; and respecting European rules. (a full recording of the interview in English is available in the attached file)
In Portugal, despite having strong resistance towards the bailout programme, there was general support for it from most of the political parties represented in parliament. Now everyone agrees that the programme has been successful. The key is in trying to find consensus. Margarida Marques says that the most important thing today is having citizens protected from all sides – job security, pensions, healthcare, and education. To do this, more solidarity at the European level is necessary. This would mean, she explains, that all member states unite in fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth, and providing security for citizens. In her opinion, such unification is possible. She gave the example of the Brexit unifying all 27 member states. As one they stated that no compromises will be made with the Union’s four freedoms and there will be no bilateral negotiations.
The same approach needs to be applied to the problems of migration, refugees, and the economy, she said. Margarida Marques is a mathematician. She spent most of her political career in the sphere of education. She was a long-term employee of the European Commission. To her, the Bratislava declaration, in which the leaders of the 27 member states drafted the main priorities, along which European consensus needs to be found, is just the beginning. The end goal is the declaration of Rome on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome. This document needs to be positive, she says. How could that happen, current attitudes in Europe being so bleak and negative?
Now is not the time for treaty change
Respecting the rules, is her short answer. She agrees that integration in the euro area needs to deepen, but adamantly discards any changes in the EU’s founding treaties. “I think that the last thing that European citizens need nowadays is to vote and to discuss and to vote and ratify new European treaties”, was her reply. In her opinion, the current EU framework gives enough opportunities for deepening of integration. Mrs Marques refused to be more specific. In her words, now is not the time to discuss a Ministry of Finance of the euro area. She underlined that the Eurogroup is not an institution, but an informal group. It is necessary that the euro area has stronger institutions, but this is not the main issue. The main issue is looking for a consensus among different institutions, so that the euro area could be governed better.
She supports the idea of the European Commission being stronger and political. “EU needs a strong EC and a political Commission because EC has the power to initiate the political decisions and EC needs to push on the improvement on the construction at EU”, believes Margarida Marques. She has nothing against the politicisation of the Commission. On several occasions Portugal has taken advantage of the more political character of the EC, thanks to which it received several concessions regarding fiscal discipline. The political approach of the Berlaymont has saved Lisbon from heavy financial sanctions while still achieving the goal of keeping the Portuguese budget within the agreed limits ... or just about. So far, this seems to be working. In this sense, it was logical to expect that the Secretary of State for European Affairs will have favourable words for the EC proposal on the creation of a positive fiscal stance for the euro area.
The proposal was discussed by the Eurogroup for the first time last week, but had a lukewarm reception. Margarida Marques disagreed with my assessment that the proposal was discarded. “It was not the best start at Eurogroup level but it’s a start”, she explained and reminded that this is how the EU works – first a proposal is put on the table and then it is discussed. It cannot be accepted on the very next day.
The red lines of enlargement
Today’s atmosphere for the European Union enlargement is totally different from back in 1986, when Portugal joined, or late, when the big-bang enlargement of 2004 and 2007 came. Regardless of the geopolitical pressure, however, which is growing by the day, the EU should make no compromises with candidate states, believes Margarida Marques. At least not with the political criteria. “Maybe this is the red line where we can’t, we need to impose, we need to respect Copenhagen criteria”. To her, the EU continues to be a democratic and economic system with common values. Portugal supports enlargement, but only if the criteria are met. Some of the candidates have done much in fighting corruption and establishing conditions for rule of law, she said, clearly showing that not all have achieved success in this sphere. Margarida Marques underlined that there will be no enlargement within the current European Commission term.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev