António Costa: “There will be no restoration of the internal market if there is no global immunization of the EU”

On January 1, the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, will replace the German Chancellor Angela Merkel as current president of the EU, during the first half of 2021. Two weeks after the transfer, and despite the uncertainty surrounding the trade negotiations with the United Kingdom and the covid pandemic19, he claims to feel relieved after the two agreements reached by the Twenty-seven last week – the recovery fund and the reduction of CO2 emissions – under the leadership of a German Chancellor. During an interview with El Periódico de Catalunya and other European media, considers that Merkel has been a “great inspirer” in “the most difficult moment for the EU since World War II”. Although on his agenda of priorities are the relaunch of the economy, development of the social pillar and strategic autonomya, does not lose sight of the two great challenges facing the EU in the short term: the coronavirus and the Brexi.

-Do you support the EU starting to vaccinate the same day?

-These months we have achieved something important which is the ability to make joint purchases through the Commission, which ensures all member states access to vaccines simultaneously and under the same conditions. It will be a long process, because we will not have all the quantities of vaccines on January 1, which will be developed next year. It is a good opportunity to convey to all European citizens the importance of the EU. So I am considering suggesting that if on 29 (December) the European Medicines Agency approves the first vaccine, as planned, that on 30 December (Angela) Merkel and (Ursula) Von der Leyen give the signal to start distributing in the Twenty-seven member states the first batch of that vaccine.

-Do you know if it will be possible?

It would be symbolic from the EU’s point of view if we could agree on a day that could be moment zero at the start of vaccination at European level. It must be understood that we will not have a restoration of the internal market if there is no immunization on a global scale in the EU. It is not a race to know who is first. It is a joint race to reach the finish line together to ensure the level of immunization on a European scale.

-What is your analysis of the negotiations with the United Kingdom?

-It is a good sign that the EU and the United Kingdom have given themselves more time to continue working with the objective of obtaining an agreement. The ability we have shown to stick together and avoid negotiations at the bilateral level, with a single negotiation conducted by the Commission and (Michel) Barnier, is an asset for the success of the negotiation. The important thing is to overcome the three remaining problems because it is very important that we continue to be good neighbors and allies in NATO and strong trading partners.

– Isn’t it the moment to negotiate at the highest political level?

-We have a clear methodology. We have a negotiator. This is not the time to open new doors. It is time to close this work with a good agreement for both parties. The absence of agreement would be very bad for everyone. First of all for neighboring countries that are going to suffer from major border traffic jams, but also for trade relations. It would not help if each Head of State and Government begins to give their own opinion.

– Are you optimistic? Until when will it be negotiated, until December 31?

– I am above all realistic. If there had been no will and no opportunity, the United Kingdom or the European Union would have closed the door to continuing the negotiation. We have to close the door as soon as possible but we know the limit and it is December 31 at midnight, although I think it would be better for all of us if we agreed to it as soon as possible.

-One of the great pending reforms inherited from Berlin is the asylum policy. How do you plan to unblock the situation?

-It is a priority and we must reach an agreement that respects the spirit of solidarity between all EU countries and, above all, never accept the idea that immigration is a matter for countries that have an external border. Most of the emigrants do not want to come to work in the countries of entry but in the countries of central Europe that offer better living conditions and opportunities. We do not want to leave the responsibility only to countries with external borders and we cannot leave all the responsibility to the countries that are most attractive to immigrants. It is a joint challenge.

-How can the EU help first-entry countries?

-It is not enough to group people together and put them on a plane in Greece and bring them to Portugal, Germany or Sweden. It is necessary to have a personalized profile of each refugee. They are people with a life experience or life goals. Solidarity cannot be something like a mathematical formula. We need something more sophisticated like an algorithm to introduce the different factors and see which is the best destination to achieve success in integrating each one.

-Is the Conference on the future of Europe among your priorities?

-If the German presidency fails to advance, we will have to relaunch the conference at the beginning of January. Europe needs a debate not about treaties but about what we want from Europe in the future. It is not useful for one or the other to pretend that there are no differences. They exist and are normal. And the best way to deal with this divergence is to speak clearly, up front and openly and see how we can all work more effectively together knowing that we have different points of view. What we have to avoid at all costs is not having enough flexibility to lead us to a new Brexit. We have all understood that the price to pay for an exit is too expensive from a political and economic point of view so that we can run the risk of new crises within the European Union

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