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As part of our Monday Talks series supported by Science 14, we have talked with H.E Augusto Santos Silva, the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Brussels about many pressing issues, including the upcoming European elections, EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, the Iran Nuclear Deal, Brexit and the future Portuguese Presidency of the EU.

Astrid Viaud: Thank you very much, Your Excellency, for receiving us today. My first question is about the European Elections we are approaching. What is exactly your prediction [regarding] the composition of the next European Parliament and [which are] the most urging challenges the European Commission and the European Parliament will have to address?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: First of all, predicting a result related to European Elections or elections anywhere in Europe is quite the strange task to do, but I would say that the bad news [are that] we have to expect a significant increase of the anti-European parties that were represented in the European Parliament. The good news [are] that [the] pro-European front composed by the conservatives, the social-democrats and also by the liberals will win by a comfortable majority.

So, I think we can expect a rapid formation of the new Commission and the appointment of the key jobs for the next mandate, including the President of the Council, [the] President of the Commission, [the] Governor of the Central Bank, [the] President of the Parliament and also the High Representative for External and Security Policy.

Astrid Viaud: What are the urging challenges the European Union is faced with? We have Brexit, which has been a centre piece of European politics for the last three years in the European Union. What is [the] most likely outcome of this saga? Do you consider that a no-deal will still be on the table?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: No, I don’t think so. It’s quite difficult to predict anything because the decision [belongs to] the British, [therefore] we can’t do anything more than [to] wait for their decision, for their choice. From the point of view of Portugal, [which] since the beginning of this process we made clear, if the United Kingdom at any point wishes to reverse its position and decides to remain in the European Union, for us it would be perfect.

Astrid Viaud: How would Brexit affect Portugal?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: Well, we are among the economies that will be affected by Brexit. We have close relations, trade relations, with the United Kingdom. It is our fourth largest client, in terms of goods, and it is the first market of origin for our tourism, [which is] is the main sector in the Portuguese economy nowadays.

And we have a lot of Portuguese migrants living and working in the United Kingdom. Our estimation is [that] around 300 thousand Portuguese people live in the United Kingdom. We have also 40 thousand British [citizens] living in Portugal, so for us it is very important that the rights of both British citizens living in Europe and European citizens living in the UK can be fully respected [and] that we can arrange a new relationship with the closest economic ties possible. We also expect that [the] new migration policy of the UK can be open.

Astrid Viaud: We just spoke about a country that wants to exit the European Union, but what about those who want to enter [it]? Portugal has actively supported the EU accession process. Considering the current developments, how do you see the next five years of negotiations with the Balkans and Turkey?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: Our general orientation is very clear. We benefit a lot [from] European integration. For us, it was very important in terms of consolidating the Portuguese democracy and stepping up our process of development. So, what is good for us, is good for the others. We are in favour of the so called open-border policy. And, for us, the only criteria that we have to consider are the Copenhagen criteria. Whoever wants to join the European Union has to be a democracy, has to respect the rule of law, [has] to be a market economy and, of course, [has to] respect and take into account all the communitarian acquis.

From left to right: Astrid Viaud, Madalina Sisu Vicari, H.E. Augusto Santos Silva, Ebubekir Isik, Natalia Liagka. Photo Credit: Vocal Europe

At this time, we don’t feel that any of the candidates fulfils all those criteria, but several of the candidates are in a very interesting process of reforming their institutions, opening their economy [and] combating corruption where it exists. We have to stimulate this reform process and we have to support the civil society that, in many of these countries, really wants to join the European Union and join European values. So, of course right now we are quite concentrated on our own internal reform process but, in our view, we have to maintain the entry process in which countries like Serbia, North Macedonia or even Turkey are engaged.

Astrid Viaud: [Regarding] EU Foreign Policy, ever since [the] Russian involvement in the Donbas region, protocol has supported the EU economic sanctions which have been adopted. Referring to Portugal’s geographical distance and economic ties with Russia, namely tourism or the Russian investment in real estate, is there any domestic or international pressure which may change the official position of Portugal in order to soften its commitment to the sanctions against Russia?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: No, the only [thing] that can change the Portuguese policy is significant progresses in the Minsk agreements, so it depends on the Russian attitude. If Russia persists in violating international law and violating the territorial integrity of other European countries, of course there will be room for European sanctions and Portugal will apply [them].

Astrid Viaud: Still on European Foreign Policy, we have the recent evolution of the nuclear Iranian File. The disagreement over this deal between the two sides of the Atlantic is clear, and for many it is deepening with the very latest round of sanctions adopted by the Trump administration. So, how do you see the future of the Iranian nuclear deal? Do you think the European Union may maintain its current stance?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: I hope so. We have several clear differences between the European Union and the United States, and I think that the European Union is on the right track. We did the deal with the Iranians, and according to the terms of this deal, the monitoring of the commitments that the Iranians then made belongs to the International Agency for Atomic Energy. This agency has already monitored, I think 15 times, the degree of compliance of Iran with its obligations in the framework of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). And in these verifications the international agency, so independent and technical experts, established that Iran was complying with its obligations. So, there is no reason for putting in question the JCPOA agreement.

Of course there are other domains in which Iran remains [a] spoiler, and other domains in which Iran still violates international rules and European values. For instance, their program for ballistic missiles and also their flagrant violations of human rights. In those domains, the European Union has sanctions against Iran. [However], the JCPOA was a very good deal, a very intense diplomatic effort, both from the Americans and the Europeans, along with other players like Russia, for instance. We have to, as the Latins used to say, respect the agreements we make, pacta sunt servanda. So, I think the European Union will remain in this position.

There is another issue, because the sanctions the Americans are applying are not applicable in the European Union itself. We don’t accept this idea of extraterritoriality of American sanctions. We decide by ourselves and I think we will remain committed to the JCPOA. But of course, as many of my colleagues have already said, we are in a very difficult moment concerning our relations with Iran, relations between the United States and Iran, and this triangle.

Astrid Viaud: Portugal will be taking over the EU Presidency in the first half of 2021 and in his speech to the European Parliament, Prime Minister António Costa spoke about the necessity to give a new life to the economic and military union. Will the issue be in the agenda during the EU Presidency? Can you give us a glimpse of the priorities?

H.E. Augusto Santos Silva: Our expectation is that the completion and reform of the monetary union can be achieved before the Portuguese Presidency. There is a clear mandate to the Eurogroup and the next European Council, in June, will take some important decisions in terms of the monetary union. If this is correct, [which is] what I’m expecting, I think the great priority of the Portuguese Presidency will be in the field of the European Foreign Policy, [mostly] concerning our partnership with Africa.

We think these are two neighbour continents and that the destiny of Europe and Africa are interlinked, so we have to build up this new alliance. President Juncker has announced it last September and made it realize in terms of cooperation, mobility, support to African civil societies, empowerment of women, new opportunities for youngsters, education and training and economic ties. In our view, Europe has, in a certain sense, abandoned Africa, including to China, and we have to reconquer our ties with [the continent]. The decisions of the last summit between the EU and the AU (African Union) were clear and we have to make concrete steps in order to launch this new partnership.

Astrid Viaud: Thank you very much, Your Excellency, for this insightful exchange and for your hospitality.