As of today, Portugal takes over the scepter from Germany. The contrast could hardly be greater.
She, in office for over 15 years – her face, known from the USA to the Middle East. Christian Democratic head of government in a state with a population of 83 million and solid economic performance.
He, in office for five years. Socialist head of government in an economically comparatively insignificant ten million country.
At first glance, the contrast couldn’t be greater – if it weren’t for the diamond. The trademark of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is also a popular hand gesture by António Costa, who will take her place at EU level as head of government of the presidency country Portugal at the side of Council President Charles Michel.
But it is definitely not the only thing they have in common. Companions describe António Costa as convinced of his own values and as a smart and tireless negotiator – but ready to compromise. The Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder, who got to know Costa in the context of European social democracy, confirms this: “He is an established social democrat, but at the same time able to seek and find compromises.”
Spokesman for the “poor”
At the summits on the future EU budget, António Costa often appeared as the spokesman for the poorer European countries. He could afford it. Firstly, his country has the Corona crisis under better control than Spain, Italy or France. And secondly, the Portuguese economy improved significantly after the financial crisis in Costa’s first term in office from 2015 to 2019: earlier than expected, he declared the austerity package put together by a previous government to be over and brought the budget deficit to zero.
Politically, he had to forge unusual alliances for this. Although the liberal-conservative Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho was again elected winner in 2015, Costa managed to use his negotiating skills to form a socialist minority government – supported by communists and the populist left bloc. And that without letting yourself be pushed too far to the left. Up until the Corona crisis, it went reasonably well.
“Discipline proves itself”
Domestically, Costa remains stable in polls today, but growing ideological rifts are opening up over the question of how Portugal should save the economy. The left-wing parties that have supported his minority government so far no longer want to support the tough budget discipline in the Corona crisis. Costa only punched the budget for 2021 through parliament with great difficulty.
But he continues to emphasize the importance of saving. “Costa knows how well the discipline has proven itself,” says Esther Maca, Austrian deputy economic delegate in Portugal. After the European rescue package, Costa was able to harvest the fruits of the previous government and lead Portugal to an economic upswing.
The pandemic has suddenly stopped the soaring, especially the important tourism sector has been hit hard. For 2020, Maca expects a historic slump of eight percent. “It will take two years for the country to recover,” says the expert.
The fact that the EU was recently able to agree on the budget and corona aid is a huge relief for Portugal – not only because Costa is now spared these negotiations. With a national debt of 118 percent of GDP, you have to rely on EU aid.
It remains to be seen whether more of Costa or his foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, who is popular in Portugal, will be seen on the EU floor in the coming months. Costa wants to use the minister in Brussels more to devote himself to the pandemic and the economy at home.