‘Proud of my roots in Goa’: Portugal PM Antonio Costa’s Q&A with HT
Ahead of his arrival for a state visit to India during which he will be the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Bengaluru, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa spoke to Hindustan Times on a wide range of issues, including the rise of populist forces in Europe and the need to boost economic ties between India and Portugal.
At a time when most of Europe is seeing the emergence of populist right leaders, how do you explain your rise as a socialist leader? Is Europe moving more to the right?
Portugal is a country open to the world, with a cosmopolitan and welcoming society. It is not a coincidence that I am the first Person of Indian Origin to lead a European country.
At the European level, we should carefully monitor the rising of populist and xenophobic parties in some European countries, while remaining confident that this phenomenon is not irreversible and should be fought against by the democratic parties, both left-wing and right-wing, by addressing its root causes.
In Portugal, there is currently no extremist right-wing party strong enough politically. We have not witnessed any emerging populist parties. And the votes in the last general elections were distributed among the traditional parties, which have been in Parliament for many years. The racist and xenophobic discourse has never scored high in Portuguese elections. On the contrary: our government stood ready to host more refugees than those who had been determined to Portugal according to our EU quota, and that decision was welcomed unanimously by all political parties and the society in general. This is why Portugal is today the fourth European country in terms of refugees welcomed in the framework of the relocation programme.
Have you been able to balance your pledge of running a “socialist programme” with the need to meet international commitments on Portugal’s budget and debts? What helped you turn the page on austerity and what more needs to be done?
During the last year we have proved that it would be possible to follow a different policy, turning the page on austerity and, at the same time, meeting our European commitments. We have managed to obtain the lowest budget deficit in the history of the Portuguese democracy, while pursuing a policy of both restoring families income that had been cut over the last years and stimulating the economy and creating jobs. This policy has enabled us to overcome the crisis we have gone through.
This government solution has worked out in a stable manner since the beginning of our mandate and has already made possible the approval of two state budgets, based on policies that promote knowledge and skills as well as their link to the economy.
We shall pursue this path, which proved to be not only possible, but also one which allows for better results at all levels: there was an improvement of the living conditions of the Portuguese people, we have today a sustainable economic growth, more and better employment and a controlled budget deficit.
There are concerns over Portugal’s economic health, with reports stating that the slow economic growth could rejig the credit ratings. Your views?
The Portuguese economy is for sure facing important challenges as most other economies are. But as I just told we are addressing those challenges, correcting most structural imbalances and tackling our main bottlenecks. The National Program of Reforms, adopted in April, is based on six pillars intended to transform structurally competitiveness and strengthen social cohesion: capacitation of Portuguese people; reinforcement of innovation in processes, products and companies; capitalisation of non-financial corporations; valorisation and qualification of the territory; modernisation of public services; and fighting inequalities.
Economic growth is for sure at the centre of our concerns and the most recent results strengthen our confidence that we are moving in the right direction. In the third quarter of 2016 growth almost tripled and Portugal was the Euro-area fastest growing economy. Indicators for the 4th quarter also show signs that growth is gaining momentum.
Taken all this into account my view is that the concerns mentioned are unfounded.
What accounts for your higher approval ratings after a year in office at a time when other centre-left leaders in Italy and France have fared poorly?
This is probably due to the fact that we are delivering what we have promised. The citizens’ disappointment with the politicians is due, to a large extent, to the fact that citizens believe – sometimes rightly – that politicians, once elected, do not deliver on their campaign promises. We have met all our commitments towards the Portuguese people, as it is our duty, and this reinforces confidence in politicians.
On the other hand, the government’s action seems to be supported by a large part of the population. This happens, I believe, because the results confirm that there was in fact an alternative, that it is possible to do politics differently, with a positive impact on people’s lives and the economic situation of the country. And it is also understood that the political solution is stable and based on a political line of responsibility and trust, which has stabilised political life through institutional cooperation and social peace.
Portuguese citizens of Goan-origin who have settled in Britain are increasingly worried about their future following the Brexit vote. Is this an issue you’ve discussed with Britain and do you think Portugal and India could work together on their future?
Regarding Brexit, the principle agreed among EU Member States is “no negotiation without notification”. Hence negotiations will certainly not start before April 2017 and, in any case, will not take place bilaterally. Anyway Portuguese citizens living in the United Kingdom (currently, more than 200,000) will all be given the same treatment regardless of their origin. Therefore Goan-origin Portuguese citizens have no reasons to fear any kind of discrimination.
While both Portugal and India describe their ties as excellent, what are the new frontiers you’d like to explore to strengthen the relations and boost trade? What new areas would you like to tap?
In fact, in spite of very good political relationship the economic relations between the two countries are almost incipient. It is this that we intend to change, starting with this visit as there are many mutually beneficial opportunities to explore.
India may take advantage of the Portuguese experience in areas in which Portugal has made big investments in the recent past such as renewable energies, infrastructures, and environmental industries related to water, sewage and garbage collection, areas that can be very relevant for India.
There are sectors in which both countries have developed know how and in which closer cooperation can be mutually beneficial, such as ICT, pharmaceuticals or medical research, aerospace or mobility. We can also explore closer ties in startups.
For India it may be interesting to consider Portugal as a platform to address markets in Europe, Latin America or in Africa.
This are examples of possible things to do, but what is really important is to strengthen the ties between our business communities and certainly opportunities will appear.
What, if any, agreements are expected to be finalised during your visit?
We have negotiated bilateral instruments in areas identified as priorities, such as defence cooperation, renewable energies, startups, information technology, electronics and communications, public administration and governance reform, science and technology, tourism and film industry.
Do you plan to trace your roots in Goa while attending the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas? Will you visit the house in Margao where your father lived? Is there anything from your grandfather’s life in Goa that influenced you?
I am deeply honoured to attend the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas as a Person of Indian Origin and my speech at that occasion will surely be framed by my roots in Goa, of which I am very proud. I am planning to use the opportunity of travelling to Goa to visit my relatives who still live in Margão, where my father had his house. And I am also very moved by the fact that I will witness the presentation, in Delhi and Goa, of the English translations of two of my father’s books.