An Interview with Ambassador João de Vallera
By Hugh S. Galford
As part of the newly instituted trio of Presidencies of the European Union, Portugal will strive to deepen Europe’s interactions with the rest of the world. As leader of the first wave of globalization in the 15th and 16th centuries, this is not surprising. In the early 1400’s, Portugal, under Henry The Navigator, began exploring the African coast. Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope (its name a translation from the Portuguese) for the first time, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama followed Dias’ route to reach India. In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral had found his way to Brazil, and a few years later other navigators reached Newfoundland. Portuguese traders had relations with Iran (and forts in Ormuz) by 1507, and had reached Japan in the 1540s.
Portuguese Ambassador João de Vallera could almost be considered a direct descendent and inheritor of these early explorers. Born in 1950 in Malange, Angola, and with a degree in Economics from the University of Lisbon, he has accomplished a fair amount of exploration himself. He served at the Embassy in Bonn, at the Permanent Mission to the European Communities in Brussels, as Director General of European Affairs, as a delegate to the Convention on the Future of Europe, and as Ambassador to Dublin, Berlin and now Washington. His tenure here propels him into an international focus, since Portugal inherited the EU presidency from Germany in July.
Several of Portugal’s earliest international relationships number among its priorities for its EU presidency. The first EU-Brazilian Summit was held in Lisbon on July 4, 2007. The aim of this Summit was to deepen and develop a strategic partnership with Brazil that would complement the EU’s strategic partnership with Latin America as a whole. Ambassador de Vallera noted with pride that of the participants in the Summit — the Head of the European Commission, and the head of Governments of the President country (Portugal), the Guest country (Brazil) and the following President country (Slovenia) — three of them spoke Portuguese as their native language.
Brazil is just the first of a number of such planned Summits. De Vallera referred to the program as dealing with BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China. These “continental powers,” like the US or Canada, are areas deemed important to the EU for strategic, energy or economic reasons. These areas may be groupings of nations, such as Latin America or the Persian Gulf states, or major individual countries. In 2000, during Portugal’s last EU presidency, talks at that high level were begun with India.
Ambassador de Vallera expects that a second EU-Africa Summit can be held in Lisbon in December. The original idea for an EU-Africa Summit began in the 1990s as “a Portuguese initiative that had to catch on with wider Europe on one hand and all African Nations on the other.
“Europe has strong links with Africa, both Europe-wide structural links, and Member States’ national ties to individual regions of Africa,” says de Vallera.
While there has long been cooperation between the EU and Africa, this has been based on a bilateral or regional approach or on an international aid donor-receiver relationship. The EU-Africa Summit logic, on the other hand, envisions the two continents “building connections in global dialogue on the basis of equals.”
The proposed second EU-Africa Summit would “further negotiations with our African partners through the African Union (AU). We want the summit to have substance and that is why we are working on the approval of a Joint Strategy and of a concrete Action Plan both to be hopefully agreed in December.”
Topics for discussion include issues of governance, trade, development, migration, human rights and health/pandemics. The ambassador sees this new relationship as “a contribution to prevent and solve conflicts” noting the EU’s continuing support with the aim to enhance the AU peace-keeping capacities. “The Summit has been held up by the situation in Zimbabwe and a solution must be found to overcome this problem. In the meantime, Portugal and the EU are busy with preparatory work for the Summit; as I said before, we are working on substance,” he says.
Portugal has plenty on its plate. There are five scheduled Ministerial-level meetings concerning EUROMED (the Barcelona Process), along with meetings to discuss the European Perspective for the Western Balkans; the enlargement process; freedom, security and justice; and migration and integration.
“There will be over 220 international meetings in Portugal alone over the next six months,” de Vallera explains. The free circulation of people is an important issue for Portugal, as are EU citizenship and “the human face of integration.” The ambassador believes that new Member States will be helped by the Portuguese-developed “SISone4ALL” software technology, for the purpose of ensuring their full integration within the borderless Schengen area.
Portugal’s most urgent priority for its presidency, however, is to finalize talks on the EU’s Reform Treaty. This Treaty, he says, “would enhance the transparency and efficiency of EU decision-making process at different levels.” The Treaty will, he says, “enable the EU to reinforce its capacity to act both internally and in the world.”
Internally, the Treaty makes a number of much-needed reforms. Primary among these is further change in decision-making from the basis of unanimity to majority vote. Unanimity worked well when there were six or even twelve Member States, but becomes a more complex issue with 27 Member States and counting.
Another major change configured by the new Treaty is the concentration on one single personality of external relations responsibilities. The High Representative in charge will accumulate the competencies which are shared today by three different political actors: the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Presidency (as the High Representative will chair the External Affairs Council), the Vice-President of the Commission responsible for Foreign Affairs and the present High Representative of the Council responsible for Common Foreign and Security policy and the European Security and Defense policy.
The new High Representative’s term of office will ensure a much more ambitious level of institutional continuity and consistency and will allow the EU in that domain to finally have a “single address and phone number.”
Another change is the introduction of the concept of a “trio” of Presidencies. Though not yet law, the idea was recently tested by a set of countries — Germany, Portugal and Slovenia. This system is based on a sequential 18-month period of policy planning, translated into a common program, allowing for higher standards of continuity, unity of purpose and distribution of work during the three semesters concerned. As any Presidency, Portugal will launch some initiatives, build on what the previous Presidency did, and leave to its successor the responsibility to develop and hopefully conclude the unfinished work. The difference is that this time the entire process has been prepared in advance by three member States for an 18-month period. When the Reform Treaty is passed, this system will be the norm.
For Ambassador de Vallera, the EU proved to be an extraordinary achievement. In the 50 years since the signing of the foundational Treaty of Rome in 1957, the Union has validated the vision of its founding fathers, that economy combined with the right institutional framework breeds new forms of interdependence and wider and more ambitious models of integration.
Having participated in the drafting of some of the treaty revisions exercises, the ambassador is enthusiastic and knowledgeable on all the nuances and details of this elaborated and unprecedented system of governance.
“The EU is the first — and unique — experience where strong nation-states decided, voluntarily, to share sovereignty in what was not a zero-sum game.” That this decision worked is due not only to political will, but also to the institutional choices made at the time. The ambassador likens the EU Council of Ministers to the US Senate, and describes the European Commission as an independent body, representing common interests, but with some important executive capacities. The Commission is also the first body to judge whether Member States are upholding EU laws. Further, the Commission was given the monopoly of initiative, especially on economic issues. Member States have accepted, through the qualified majority logic, the possibility of being out-voted in legislative decisions that will be applied in their internal juridical order.
The European Parliament (EP) was originally a weaker institution, basically with consultative functions; but in the last revisions of the Treaty has gained more substantial power. Since passage of the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the EP has attained parity with the Council through the power of co-decision on acts dealing with the market, industry, etc., which now must be approved by the Council and by Parliament.
The EU can point to many success stories, among them the rapid economic development of its members. Portugal, for example, joined the EU in 1986 with a per capita GDP 54% of the EU average. In 2005 — in just 20 years — Portugal’s per capita GDP equaled 75% of the EU average.
De Vallera stresses the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship to the EU. Despite recent policy differences between the US and individual EU Member States, the US-EU relationship has grown closer. Under Germany’s presidency, there were detailed talks prior to the annual EU-US Summit, with major agreements on the creation of a new economic institutional framework, (the Transatlantic Economic Council), and with promising developments on energy and environmental policy. A permanent dialogue exists, at several different levels, on global issues and on current international conflicts.
The ambassador also stresses the links of economic interdependence between the US and the EU. The US, he says, “invests more in Belgium than the whole EU does in China. And the EU invests more in Texas alone than the US does in China and India combined.” Such economic ties, he says, “makes it easier for real integration” of wider policy across the Atlantic.
Asked about the fact that Portugal’s place at the center of global issues may strike some as surprising, as for most of the 20th century, it was a largely overlooked nation. But as de Vallera mentions, not frequently occupying the front pages is not necessarily a handicap, since public attention is not always gathered for the best reasons. From 1928 to 1974, Portugal was ruled by a dictatorship, and was thus “less popular for political reasons.” It was only after 1974 that the country moved back to the democratic circle of nations and began its reintegration into Europe. At that point, “we became a big source of interest and curiosity because of the evolution of the political regime. The direction we would take was, at that time, not at all clear for everybody.”
That direction was clarified in 1986 with Portugal’s entry into the EU. Then “we were back to the European framework” and economic development followed. Despite its small size, Portugal has won a number of accolades, both European and global. In 1998, José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature, (Portuguese is the sixth largest world language with over 200 million speakers and growing). Portugal has also hosted and supported a number of world-class exhibitions and events, and is today much better known for its remarkable tourist, cultural, historical and human resources. Sport — namely soccer — has also raised the image and notoriety of Portugal in the world.
In European terms, Portugal is a middle-sized nation of 10 million inhabitants. It’s generally admitted in European circles in Brussels that while smaller countries may not have the same degree of political capacity and ease that a larger state has in terms of political weight, they do have certain other advantages. “Most of the President Country’s work is to advance projects already started,” the ambassador says. “In smaller countries, there is a great deal of pride involved in doing well, and often there are not as many conflicts of interest with what has to be approved.” In small Member States, he says, “it is easier for citizens to be more motivated about ‘Europe’, and more inclined to accept what they do not see immediately as in their own interest.” Larger states tend to be more conditioned in their action by solidly ingrained national interests.
Beyond the shared global threats, Portugal’s major challenge is at home. Portugal has been a unified country with a single language and largely the same borders since 1245. As a small state with a strong identity, the concept of being part of Europe appears not to be an issue. “For centuries,” de Vallera says, “Portugal was a country of emigration. In the last decade, however, we have also become a country of immigration.” The country now has a sizeable Ukrainian population, along with newly arrived Brazilians and the more traditional Portuguese-speaking Africans.
“We consider ourselves an open country. We have lived all around the world, but now we are integrating communities within Portugal.” The major issues that need to be addressed are the issues of jobs and economic growth, the capacity to employ the new arrivals, and the size and direction of the labor market.
Ambassador de Vallera says that “the idea, and the ideal, of the European Union is still a magnet in Europe. New States want to join.” He also holds that there is “a growing demand for Europe in the world based in the belief that Europe can offer a very positive contribution to international affairs. On the other hand, the integration experience in Europe is being taken as a standard elsewhere. Other regions — Latin America, Asia and Africa, for example — take an attentive look to the evolution of the European integration process. Nobody thinks of an automatic transfer of models since different realities require adapted solutions, but this is nevertheless a domain where Europe leads by example.”
The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is hosting an exhibition entitled “Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries” through Sept. 16. For a review, see the link to the NY Times. (login may be required)