H.E. Maria Virgínia, Portuguese Ambassador to Serbia: Portugal is available to help, as a reliable partner

We have a commitment to Europe that encompasses the Western Balkans and, naturally, Serbia

H.E. Maria Virgínia, Portuguese Ambassador to Serbia spoke for December issue of D&C magazine about her first year and how she felt adopted by Serbia, the fourth Portuguese Presidency of the European Union next year as well as bilateral, economic, culture and other forms of cooperation, between our two countries.

H.E. Maria Virgínia, Portuguese Ambassador to Serbia

Your Excellency, you came to Serbia a little over a year ago. How would you rate the first year of your tenure and what would you like to highlight in particular?

I would like to highlight the way Serbia and the Serbian people welcomed me since the moment I arrived, which I find extraordinarily rewarding. That is why I rate quite highly my first year here in Belgrade. Then the pandemic started and, unfortunately, I had to reduce part of my contacts and limit my visits to other parts of Serbia. However, I want to resume these activities as soon as the health situation will allow it. In a nutshell, I felt adopted by Serbia.

In which areas can the bilateral and economic relations between the two countries improve? 

Our two countries, due not only to Geography and History, have had paths for the past centuries that rarely got connected on longstanding grounds, despite the good will and curiosity on both sides. In the past decades, things began to change with a much more connected world, but there are still several areas to develop. Portugal has a commitment to Europe that encompasses the Western Balkans and, naturally, Serbia. The stabilization of this Region, and Portugal is keen of the idea of stabilization, can only be achieved with Serbia’s involvement, as we have seen on some of the recent advances in regional integration. Portugal is available to help, as a reliable partner, Serbia in its European path and our bilateral relation can also reflect and build on that reality.

“The stabilization of this Region, and Portugal is keen of the idea of stabilization, can only be achieved with Serbia’s involvement”

Concerning the economic areas that can be developed, I would highlight renewal energy, environment, digital and innovation, and e-government as the most interesting areas for the development of relations between our two countries. Considering our knowhow, there are opportunities for investment and development of projects with capital from both countries. On a bilateral plan, the relationship with Portugal also provides a door to the Lusophony world, which encompasses all the continents and Serbia is already an observer in our Portuguese Speaking Countries’ Community.

Portugal will take over the Presidency of the European Union in January 2021. What challenges await you given that the coronavirus pandemic has dragged the EU into unprecedented public health and economic crisis?

This is the fourth Portuguese Presidency and this is a particular time during an unprecedented challenging scenario. This raises the bar of expectations for our Presidency and, naturally, our ability to deliver will rise accordingly. We are committed to address all the challenges that this pandemic as thrown us upon, especially the economic and social effects for our societies and model.

Nevertheless, this will not turn us away from other questions, such as UE enlargement, for example. It is true that the COVID pandemic has managed to distress the world and take up all of the (deserved) attention; however, the EU needs to remain attentive to the geopolitical and institutional questions that continuously need to be dealt it. The pandemic will go away, and the EU will remain, and our commitment is to contribute, by the means of our Presidency, to its growing resilience.

What topics will be priorities on Portugal’s agenda and what kind of plan has the country devised accordingly?

Portugal has elected five priorities for the Presidency. The first priority is Europe’s resilience, relying on economic recovery and the much-needed reinforcement of social cohesion, both underscored by the respect for European values and for the Rule of Law, especially when dealing with COVID 19 pandemic. The second priority is Social Europe, in which Portugal will press for a political thrust implementing the European Pillar on Social Rights. The third is Green Europe, which aims to reflect the importance of addressing climate change. The fourth is Digital Europe, an area in which Portugal has showed its strengths, and that has a spectrum of application that goes beyond economy, reaching areas as digital education and digital democracy. The last is Global Europe, as Portugal is quite keen on global dialogues, and wishes to assert that EU can dialogue with all the main geopolitical actors, including Africa and Latin America.

All of abovementioned priorities have in common the idea of striving for Europe’s recovery, especially after the pandemic, through the European Social Model, and balancing the social and economic dimensions.

H.E. Maria Virgínia, Portuguese Ambassador to Serbia

Which priorities should the new Serbian Government set in terms of the European integration process?

The priorities are widely known, and they are part of an ongoing process in which Serbia and the EU are engaged. The accession process is almost like a living mechanism, and the recent methodology changes reflects that, allowing to more easily adapt to the obstacles, characteristics and needs of the candidate country. Concerning the necessary steps, the Annual Progress Report assess the areas that are fundamental for European integration, and detail the advances and shortcomings.

Bearing this in mind, Serbia must continue its economic reforms, which are already providing good results and point at an even closer and deeper euro integration, and chiefly engage in the reforms in the Rule of Law area, which are fundamental to accede but also after becoming a member. I think that adopt and implement reforms in this latter area will show Serbia’s commitment towards the European integration. Serbia’s commitment to the European path means the awareness of fulfilling criteria, and that fulfillment depends, first, on meaningful and concrete steps, which in our opinion, can perfectly start to happen in the upcoming months.

How do you see the EU’s struggle with the coronavirus developing, given that forecasts indicate that the lockdown and long-term restrictions on trade, tourism and transport will surpass previous recessions, including the 2008/2009 financial crisis?

Fighting against the unknown is an almost impossible mission, and that was the feeling most of us had at the beginning of the pandemic crisis. The measures that were put in place by each country were, at the beginning, individualized and reactive, therefore highly disruptive. That was normal, considering the circumstances, but fortunately, for the most part, were met with the comprehension and goodwill of the population. Then afterwards and in the second wave, things changed, as it was possible to have better coordination, plan better and to avoid dramatic decisions, such as closing down borders, despite the population fatigue. However, we face other challenges at a time when the pandemic has still not yet began to subside in a definite way.

“Fighting against the unknown is an almost impossible mission, and that was the feeling most of us had at the beginning of the pandemic crisis”

Nevertheless, we also see that the EU has answers in place, such as the Recovery Program or the Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, so I would say that there is a real engagement and commitment not only to find solutions, but also to apply them in a way that real people can find appropriate answers. This does not mean that the application will be easy or immediate. However, it reminds us that there is a Union that is pooling resources and building comprehensive responses whenever possible.

How is the Portuguese Government fighting the pandemic, and what measures have been implemented to protect the economy and the population?

There is a vast array of measures, which are continuously being tailored to deal with the evolution of the pandemic. Right now, under the emergency state, approved by our Parliament, we have circulation restrictions between different counties during weekends and holidays, and a limited curfew in place in the most severely hit regions. At the same time, Portugal keeps businesses and schools open so that the transmission circuits can be broke and the health system can cope with the demands. Telework, whenever possible, has also been imposed has an additional measures. There are also travel restrictions in place to countries outside the EU, from which only essential travels are allowed, with mandatory PCR tests.

Plans for 2021

Can we expect a better situation in the coming year, and then the intensification and implementation of joint activities and programmes in tourism and culture?

The situation can take some time to improve, but I think that, from all the signals we are getting, that in 2021 we will watch some normalization. In addition, it will be only natural that the cultural and touristic activities restart and intensify. In fact, people will be anxious to get in touch with the world as before and this will, sooner than later, drive the demand on programs and events related to culture and tourism. Portugal has “good press” in Servia when we talk about culture, and I feel that there is a thirst, amongst Serbs, to discover our country at several levels. As the intensification of the cultural contacts made part of the plans for my tenure, which was affected by the pandemic, I can only hope for normal times in order to get back to this plan, hoping also for direct flights, that can also foster, based on personal experiences, the connections between our two countries.

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