Sunday, September 18, 2022

A republic mourns a monarch

For a fully independent republic like Portugal to officially declare a three-day period of national mourning for a foreign monarch is remarkable, but such is the respect for the late Queen Elizabeth ll and this country’s centuries of close ties with Britain.

The mourning here overlaps the funeral in London on Monday attended by Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa among many other heads of state.

Under the Treaty of Windsor as long ago as 1386, Portugal and Britain forged a bond of friendship known as the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance. This was centuries before the two maritime nations located on the western edge of the European continent created, without any conflict between them, separate empires across the world. The alliance is still in force today.

Portugal’s last monarch was Dom Manuel ll. His reign came to an end with the October Revolution in 1910. Manuel lived the last two decades of his life in exile in Twickenham, England.

In 1932, the year Manuel died, the then British monarch, King George V, addressed his people for the first time on the radio. He wished them a happy Christmas in a speech composed by the legendary writer Rudyard Kipling.

George V’s granddaughter Elizabeth was just six years old at the time. Her coronation in 1953 was broadcast live on television channels and this is said to have been the major event that established television as a mainstream medium in Britain. She has totally dominated it day and night since her passing on Thursday 8th September.

Queen Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, made two state visits to Portugal. The first was in 1957 during the Estado Novo dictatorship of António Oliveira Salazar. The second was in 1985 when crowds in the port city of Setubal cheered and chanted ‘Viva la a Rainha’ before the royal couple went on a four-day tour of Lisbon, Porto and Evora in the Alentejo.

Prince Charles visited Portugal with his wife Princess Diana in 1987. They attended a memorial service marking the 600th anniversary of the marriage of Portugal’s King Dom João l to Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of England’s John of Gaunt. It coincided with the 1386 Treaty of Windsor alliance. Prince Charles made another visit, this time in 2011 with his present wife, Camilla, now the new king’s consort.

With the easing of the COVID pandemic, the number of British holidaymakers in Portugal has been surging again. Currently there are more than 46,000 British citizens registered as living in Portugal, the second largest number of expatriates after those from the former Portuguese colony of Brazil. 

Friday, September 16, 2022

A pause in an EU – UK battle


Dramatic developments previously expected this week involving the Portuguese diplomat João Vale de Almeida have probably been put on hold for the period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll.

As ambassador of the European Union in the United Kingdom, Vale de Almeida is facing fierce and complex opposition from the UK’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss over the Brexit treaty.

Leaders from every EU country, including Portugal’s  President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, sent tributes and messages of condolence to Her Majesty’s family and to the people of Great Britain.

Just before the Queen’s passing, the focus for Ambassador Vale de Almeida was a battle over the Northern Ireland protocol, the most sensitive element of the Brexit deal signed in 1996. Truss has said she is going to unilaterally change part of the protocol. The European Commission absolutely rejects this and has indicated that any unilateral change or scrapping the protocol altogether as Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson suggested, could lead to a trade war.

Vale de Almeida, a former ambassador to the United States and later the United Nations, has made it clear that in his opinion it would be both “illegal and unrealistic” for the UK to fail to honour its commitment to the Brexit deal.

“It is illegal because it would be a breach of EU, UK and international law. It is unrealistic because it does not provide a real alternative to the protocol.” The government’s approach was probably “on a road to nowhere.”

Should Liz Truss with the backing of her hard-core conservatives go ahead, the EU has vowed to impose sanctions that could bring about a complete suspension of the whole Brexit trade deal, a move that Portugal would support, but that would have enormous consequences for the UK economy.

The protocol was originally agreed in order to avoid a hard border between NI, a region within the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which, like Portugal, is a firm member of the EU. The protocol also seeks to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in ‘the Troubles’’.

In Northern Ireland, leaders of both the majority Sinn Fein party that wants Irish unity, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that wants the closest possible ties with Britain, have expressed their sincere respect for Queen Elizabeth. So too has the leader of the Irish government in Dublin.

On the eve of a brief visit to Northern Ireland in her final days as foreign secretary, Liz Truss said she was going to override part of the Brexit divorce deal, a statement that outraged all but NI unionists. It was described by some of those who oppose the idea as “political insanity”.

Vale de Albeida is understood to be highly concerned about the low level of trust between the UK and the EU: “between our leaders, between all of us that are involved in this relationship.”

Relationships are right on the edge with a desperate need for further negotiations, which both sides claim the other is avoiding at a time when both are facing crippling energy and cost of living crises.

Meanwhile, the NI devolved government is unable to function because in February the DUP thrust it into limbo until the protocol is scrapped. Sinn Fein, as well as the centrist Alliance Party, the third largest in NI - plus the majority of NI citizens who voted against Brexit in the referendum -  want the protocol to remain in place.

In his first phone call to congratulate Liz Truss on taking over as prime minister, President Joe Biden, who is proud of his Irish ancestry, appealed to her to abide by the protocol agreement. Not to do so would hinder not only trade arrangements between the EU and the UK, but between the UK and the US.

Liz Truss is tough and likened to the ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher. Her main adversary in Brussels is an equally tough lady, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who will certainly not be bullied into accepting any breach of the internationally binding Brexit trade agreement. 

As Ambassador Vale de Almeida has insisted, further negations are vital. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Marcos Sefcovic, has said that “the call for the UK government to engage with us has been clear for a year.” He added: “A way forward can be found.”

Very privately, Queen Elizabeth would almost certainly have agreed.