Portugal Takes Leadership of the EU Council, and the EU in New Directions

Erika Fedorova
President of the European Council Charles Michel and Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa at a press conference for Portugal’s presidency of the EU Council,
January 5 2021 Source: António Pedro Santos/LUSA

Portugal entered 2021 by taking its turn of Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This marks the fourth time that Portugal leads the Council – the last time was in 2007. Upon this new term, Portugal is in a unique position; its Presidency arrives at a crucial time for the European Union. Entering a new post-Brexit phase, Portugal will help navigate the EU in a more enhanced multilateral direction. Furthermore, Portugal accompanies the EU as it enters a new phase in COVID-19 management, where cross-national vaccine rollout becomes a priority.

With its new presidential programme, Portugal vows its commitment to ensure the EU’s ability to accommodate new circumstances posed by areas of health, development, and international relations. This is marked by the motto:

‘Time to deliver: for a fair, green and digital recovery’


Underpinning Portugal’s agenda for its six-month term leading the EU Council are three initiatives. The first concerns economic recovery, focusing on climate and digital transitions. This principally entails the restoration of Europe’s economy, hit hard by COVID-19. Such restoration will be accompanied by digitalization. This includes the venture into a digital economy, digital development, and devolved digitalization to national and municipal governments. The focus on digitalization is pre-empted by a focus on sustainability. Initiatives for economic recovery are underpinned by the need for a decarbonised economic model. With this, Portugal promises to actuate the European Green Deal – a plan of action that aims to make the EU climate neutral by 2050.

Portugal’s second priority lies in implementing the above-mentioned climate and digital transitions through the European Pillar of Social Rights. The Pillar focuses on delivering equality and social protections across the EU’s 27 member states. While, delivering economic recovery and climate action, Portugal will maintain a social model that ensures no one gets left behind. Its policy of social equality therefore includes supporting the creation of a European Health Union; an initiative to ensure healthcare in Europe is responsive, accessible and innovative. As its term only lasts until June, Portugal’s role in the development of the Health Union will centre on fast and accessible COVID-19 vaccination across the EU and beyond.

Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa presenting Portugal’s programme for Presidency of the Council of the EU to the European Parliament , January 20 2021 Source: Eric Vidal/EP

Finally, Portugal‘s Presidency promises to lead the European Union into becoming a global player with strategic autonomy. Portugal hopes to enact the EU’s established plans for enhanced global relations. This will include expanding into regions such as Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as renewing relations with partners like the US and UK. Feeding into the goal of European economic recovery, Portugal will accompany the development of the EU’s various global trade agreements and investments. Such arrangements will be made with respect to the newly emphasised European goal of strategic autonomy in the international arena. Following the UK’s departure, as well as weakened relations with the US under Donald Trump, the EU is adopting a position of command in the world.


First and foremost is the need for economic recovery. At a press conference with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister António Costa explained Portugal’s plans to execute the arrangements for economic recovery overseen by the previous Presidency, i.e. Germany. The focus is now on distributing national funds for EU member-states to repair impediments, caused by COVID-19, to their economies. This involves the implementation of the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), including the EU Next Generation Instrument. €1824.3 billion is available for programmes including ‘single market, innovation and digital’ and ‘cohesion, resilience and values’. The mechanisms therefore intend to achieve COVID-19 recovery, whilst focusing onto climate and digital initiatives to strengthen the economy against future challenges.

Significant attention is placed on digital transformations – in businesses, the financial sector, and climate solutions. Digital transformations in climate solutions are tied to the Council’s mission statement of a sustainable, carbon neutral economy. Each initiative therefore contributes to European ambitions of global leadership in managing the digital sector and climate change. This is significant in an era of increasing reliance on digital technology and global governments’ acceleration in tackling climate change. This entails a longer-term transition than the urgency posed by COVID-19 and instant shift in EU membership following Brexit. However, Portugal’s involvement in boosting digital and climate strategies will associate it with a landmark transition in EU capacity.

A video conference between economic and financial affairs ministers of Portugal and the EU, January 19 2021 Source: European Union

While Portugal’s priorities lie in promoting digitalization to restore Europe’s economy, it also stresses digital regulation. Controls on large technology companies based and operating in Europe are relevant on the presidential agenda. Portugal vowed to accelerate negotiations for both the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. Between them, the Acts will create greater protections for users of technology platforms, such as Google and Amazon. They will also increase competition in the technology market. The Digital Markets Act is reflective of Portugal’s own rise in technology businesses. The government has made numerous investments available to smaller technology companies, allowing them to break into the technology market.

It should be noted that Portugal is still recovering from its 2010-2014 national financial crisis. COVID-19 has slowed down this recovery. Its influence in managing European economic recovery will therefore accompany its own economic needs. This includes domestic needs, as well as those needs and issues that arise from its relative small size and limited strength, therefore also being an example for similar countries. Although the unique circumstances posed by COVID-19 mean that the majority of EU nations currently share common economic needs, the latter still vary. One example is Portugal’s need to sustain its tourist industry.


Portugal has recently experienced a national surge in COVID-19 cases. The country is now in lockdown as its health system struggles. Its economy has also been negatively impacted. Therefore, in discussions surrounding COVID-19 management, Portugal has also made its own national interests clear, one of which is the need to recover tourism. In 2018, tourism accounted for 8% of Portugal’s GVA. As one of the countries which thrives on tourism more than others, Portugal has expressed greater considerations of vaccine certification, to ensure increased, yet safe, travel. This moves such considerations further up the EU agenda to restore the European tourist industry – a key step in alleviating the dire circumstances posed by the pandemic.

Portugal’s Health Minister Marta Temido at a press conference with European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides, January 13 2021
António Pedro Santos/Lusa

The EU COVID-19 vaccination strategy outlines the necessity to ensure ‘equitable and affordable’ access to vaccines. Portugal’s recognition, in its programme, of cross-national differentiation in resources and capacities mean its involvement in this phase of COVID-19 management will be beneficial to small and medium sized EU members like itself. Upholding the social awareness pillar, Portugal is prioritized with ensuring vaccine accessibility for all members. This, in turn, will contribute to socio-economic recovery in all member-states. The vaccination strategy, underlined with a rhetoric of social fairness, will be Portugal’s primary contribution to the development of the European Health Union – a mission to improve future responses to similar public health threats.


Portugal’s programme for leadership of the Council lists the global EU partnerships it hopes to accelerate. During its term, the emphasis is on deepening relations with the East. At the introductory press conference, Prime Minister Costa noted the EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China. The Agreement aims to open up China’s market, granting equal access to European companies and setting “a new basis” for the EU’s relationship with China. This is also intends to “inspire a relationship with India”. Currently, the focus is on the upcoming EU-India Summit in May. The Summit aims to further the EU’s trade and investment with India.

Portuguese representatives have highlighted the significance of forthcoming EU relations with India. Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silver highlighted that EU relations with India will create a “geopolitical equilibrium”, a statement which complements EU ambitions of fair global trade. Portugal’s colonial historic ties to India, may still hold significance in how Portugal conducts European trade policies. In this particular instance, it will be up to Portugal to approach India from a position of equilibrium.

Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa, President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at the
presentation for Portugal’s Presidency, January 20 2021 Source: Daina le Lardic/EP

Attention is also brought to the EU’s impending relations with the US under Joe Biden. These have been regarded as restoration efforts toward a dampened relationship caused by Donald Trump. The EU has made clear its mission to re-start cooperative relations with the US in several areas. With Portugal helping to oversee this renewed cooperation, it is presented with the opportunity to stress its own national priorities, such as securing greater export trade to the US.

Overall, Portugal will help expand the EU’s global presence as it enters its new phase of strategic autonomy. The EU is regarded as a coherent international actor, with many of its foreign policy functions delegated by member states to its core instruments, one of which is the Council (Aggestam, 2012). Portugal’s responsibility, as leader of the Council, will be to: a) maintain this internal coherence, and b) ensure it translates to the world stage, where Portugal recognizes the need for the EU’s position to remain strong.


A six-month term is a short period for Portugal to spearhead the implementation of several developments intended to advance European health, economy and international standing. Many of the initiatives in its programme will have medium to long-term implications. This is especially true for the Council’s international aspirations, however domestic security matters are compelling as well. Portugal has vowed to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination, notwithstanding, the dispersion and responsiveness of this process will show comprehensive effects on European health and economy much later than June. Nonetheless, its participation in such developments will cast it positively, as a nation who helped navigate landmark EU initiatives, like the European Health Union.

Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa at a press conference in Lisbon, January 15 2021 Source: Antonio Pedro Santos/Lusa

EU initiatives concerning health and economy, especially where common environmental circumstances are considered, entail multilateral governance. This governance will formally require the consensus of all members. Portugal’s Presidency of the Council is therefore fitting at this point, as a country with diplomatic strength, able to maintain political cohesion (Dias, 2021). Other member states like Cyprus have voiced their confidence in Portugal; its relative size and strength mean it will appease all member-states, instead of advancing a hidden agenda.

The contribution Portugal can provide to this cross-national governance will also demonstrate its loyalty to the EU framework. This is important in light of renewed discourse on EU membership. Portugal itself has exhibited Euroscepticism amid the European debt crisis. However, it has demonstrated a strengthened position during its inauguration period in the Council Presidency. Referring to Portugal’s trio-presidency with Germany and Slovenia, Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva stated that the trio’s priorities “match perfectly” and they “see the European project in a very similar fashion”. In line with this sentiment, Portugal’s leadership of the Council, as the EU turns a page following the UK’s departure, ultimately strengthens its relation to the Union.

  • Although this is a significant phase for the EU, will Portugal’s contributions be recognized in the grand scheme of things?
  • Considering its involvement at such a turning point, as well as its relative size, will Portugal’s Presidency of the Council raise its status within the EU as a more influential member, and perhaps a closer one to the centre?
  • Will this particular Presidency strengthen positive EU sentiment within Portugal, considering previous trends of Euroscepticism?

Suggested Readings

2021Portugal.eu (2021). “Programme for the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union”. 2021Portugal.eu, 2021.

Aggestam, Lisbeth (2012) ‘New actors, new foreign policy: EU and enlargement’. In: S. Smith, A. Hadfield, T. Dunne (eds.), Foreign Policy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 463-483.

Utopia EU (2021). “Council of the European Union priorities and key dossiers”. Utopia EU, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Portugal Takes Leadership…

by Erika Fedorova time to read: 8 min