JOAO Luís Niza Pinheiro, who has been a diplomat all his professional life and served the interests of Portugal in Latvia and Senegal among other places, says that Europeans are now living in a time of fundamental change and unprecedented financial crisis in which their leaders might not know exactly what scenarios the future will present. The Portuguese ambassador to Slovakia is optimistic about Europe’s future, though he warns that the years ahead will be difficult. He says that not even the painful austerity measures that his government has had to take have changed the fact that the Portuguese continue to identify themselves as European citizens.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Niza Pinheiro, who arrived here in 2010 and sees much potential for building bridges between Portugal and Slovakia, about Portugal’s energy challenges, links between Portuguese and Slovak academia and businesses, and tourism potential between the two countries.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Portugal has some of Europe’s sunniest areas, which has understandably resulted in the rapid growth of the use of solar power in Portugal. What are the main challenges that Portugal faces in the area of renewable energy?
Joao Luís Niza Pinheiro (NP): Renewable energy is something that has been at the centre of our attention especially in the past decade, given the fact that Portugal has a quite high – currently around 77 percent – energy dependence on external resources. We do not have oil, gas, sufficient amounts of coal and nuclear energy has been excluded, as the Portuguese people is opposed to it, so it is crucial for us to pursue an adequate energy mix, namely balancing it with renewable resources developed in our territory, bearing in mind the situation in the world as well environmental considerations. In line with EU policies, we have subscribed to the 20-20-20 targets. Thus, we are aiming, from renewable energy sources, at attaining 31 percent of the primary energy in that horizon, and in energy efficiency reducing our energy consumption by 25 percent by the same time, with our public sector setting an example by reaching a reduction of 30 percent. These are quite ambitious targets, indeed real challenges, but achieving them will reduce Portugal’s energy dependence as well as keeping our country at the forefront of the European Union in the use of renewable energies. My Government sees the role of this sector as one of the motors for the competitive advantage of Portugal.
I would use recent figures released by Eurostat to illustrate that we are on a good track to achieving those targets: the EU average in renewable energy stood at 12.4 percent of total energy consumption in 2010, while Portugal ranked fourth, with almost 25 percent. This places us at the forefront. All in all, this should result in lower dependence on oil, which is the largest source of energy in Portugal.
TSS: Slovakia has been trying for the past two decades to forge better links between the needs of the labour market and academia and is now, again, trying to tackle this issue. What is the situation in Portugal, a country with a rich university heritage?
NP: Yes, indeed, Portugal has a rich university heritage which goes back to 1290, when King Denis founded and granted academic autonomy to the University of Coimbra, one of the three oldest universities in Europe. This autonomy became an essential characteristic of our system. Later the University of Évora emerged in the 16th century, marking an important landmark in our university system up to the 20th century, when the modern University of Lisbon and the University of Porto were established as public institutions.
In the early 1970s a number of other public and private universities were set up, namely in larger cities. Yet the whole network has shown a paramount interest in research and interaction with Portuguese enterprises. The network was completed by polytechnic institutes, which further strengthened the links between businesses and academia. The direct links between the universities and businesses include research centres as well as conducting applied research through contracts with individual firms. Then research teams from the universities participate in so-called ‘collective research projects’ financed by public funds. Specialised units known as incubators to promote start-ups for research done in universities are yet another form of link. There is, thus, a whole institutional setup, a certain pragmatic philosophy behind these links between academia and businesses. Of course, these links have not always been this strong and it was the variety and the increasing development in the academia approach and the growing power of the private sector in Portugal, alongside with the continuous internationalisation of Portuguese firms which allowed us to fully realise how useful these links can be and how they can work for the benefit of the whole country. Even now, when the crisis is hitting, there is an important number of starting enterprises which come from this connection.
Young entrepreneurs in Portugal, with small enterprises, are directly emerging from these combined forces, which puts them in the forefront of innovation and competitiveness in the economy.
This is actually one of the areas where I see great potential for cooperation between Slovakia and Portugal, and we can mutually learn from each other: you live in a different part of Europe and your economy is doing very well and I think together we can explore interesting ways of bringing academia and the private sector together.
TSS: The financial crisis has seriously impacted your homeland and in 2011 Portugal became the third EU country after Greece and Ireland to ask for a financial bailout. In response, your government has already introduced a package of reforms. What are its main pillars and how did the population receive them?
NP: The global economic crisis in 2008 to 2009 has been underestimated at a global level, which is the primary source of our difficulties. The assistance programme negotiated with Portugal is a comprehensive and vast one, based on three pillars: budget consolidation; reduction of indebtedness of the economy and reinforcement of the stability of the financial system; and, thirdly, structural reforms to create conditions for more competitiveness of the economy and sustainable development.
The programme is underway, and remains on track. Four review joint missions of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF have extensively scrutinised its implementation and all them have, so far, concluded that there is compliance with the goals. The fifth review is about to occur. The Government has continuously declared itself fully committed to the targets and most of the Opposition, while criticising some of the aspects of the programme, is backing the essence of it, thus allowing for a clear and strong supportive majority in Parliament. The population, although severely hit by a series of measures, is enduring them without public unrest of the type that we have seen for much less reason in the last two years in some other member states. In Portugal we witnessed no riots or buildings on fire, although there were general strikes and demonstrations – but these did not really require police intervention and meant that the population freely expressed its feelings. There are already tangible results, but they are expected to be more visible during the very next years, since the Programme is only one year old, lasting until 2014. It would be very time-consuming to go in detail, I will just select two of them: we came from a budget deficit of around 9 percent and reduced it, in 2011, to 4.2 percent of GDP, which is a huge consolidation; a considerable plan of privatisations is underway and the first ones are done.
TSS: Have recent problems within the eurozone as well as the related austerity measures affected the public’s attitude towards the European Union? Is there any significant growth in euroscepticism in your homeland?
NP: In April I read a piece in Financial Times which suggested that despite the sacrifices, the mood of the Portuguese towards the European Union is not showing any fundamental change, referring to the fact that only 16 to 18 percent of the population opposed the current developments in the EU. A more recent poll, which came out in the last days, suggested that 70 percent of the Portuguese feel themselves European citizens and say that Portugal must stay in the eurozone, although concerning the specific issue of austerity, as it is natural everywhere, only 36.5 percent of the population agrees with the measures required by Brussels. I think the EU is deeply ingrained in the lifestyle and thinking of the Portuguese people and I do not foresee any dramatic change. In fact euroscepticism has no party representation in Portugal.
TSS: Could you please describe the current state of economic cooperation between Portugal and Slovakia?
NP: Our business links are rather recent: Slovakia has been present in Portugal since the country’s accession to the European Union and we have been present in Slovakia since 2005. I am only the second resident ambassador in Slovakia. As for trade, Slovakia is well-positioned as a destination for Portuguese exports of goods and has made it into the 50 top countries, being ranked 41st. Slovakia ranks 40th in the Portuguese imports. Over the past five years the trade balance in goods has always been positive for Slovakia, while positive for Portugal in the trade balance in services. We mostly export machines, transport vehicles, textiles, rubber and plastics, while Slovakia exports machinery, vehicles, metals and textiles.
TSS: Do you think that the investment potential between Slovakia and Portugal has been fully explored? What are the areas where you see some potential for cooperation between the two countries?
NP: Foreign direct investment from Slovakia to Portugal has been very limited and of course we would like to have more investment from Slovakia. Our investment in Slovakia, although not big, is visible. We follow the same rules and pay with the same currency and have a very similar system of commercial policies, which makes investments easier. Among the limitations is perhaps that both countries are trying to attract direct foreign investment, although of course we are focusing on different markets from Slovakia. But I do see a potential here, and others see it as well, which is why we are organising various business missions. For instance, some three months ago the Slovak Chamber of Commerce and Industry took a business mission to Portugal, where it co-operates with the Portuguese Industrial Association, which is an important player there.
Your automotive sector is interesting since it is a well-developed sector in Portugal too; among others we have Volkswagen, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Toyota and Isuzu. So one of the potential areas for increased business could be for sub-suppliers of parts and accessories for vehicles. Portugal is efficient in this area. Also in electronic services: when you think about e-government or electronic procurement, our firms have solutions that already moved Portugal into the international arena, and I see a potential for the two countries to work closer together in these areas.
Then, there is the area of scientific and technological cooperation, since my country has strongly invested in areas such as biomedical sciences, communication and information technologies, and this has moved us to the European vanguard. We have top-level, internationally recognised institutions, for example the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory, one of the best-equipped institutes in Europe, and thus Slovakia could also benefit from such an area of cooperation. So there are tools for exchanging researchers. Of course, some of this cooperation is already happening: we have some 12 projects underway with Slovakia and 53 research projects were financed by the 7th framework programme of the EU.
TSS: Back in 2010, Portuguese, along with Arabic and Chinese, was among the fastest growing languages in the United States. How do you assess the interest of Slovaks in Portugal, the Portuguese language and the culture of your homeland?
NP: I was pleasantly surprised after I found out that there is a real interest in Bratislava. A course of Portuguese language and Portuguese culture exists since some years at Comenius University. A Portuguese lecturer paid by Portugal is directing it and about 50-90 people might be enrolled every year. The Economy University in Bratislava, too, showed an interest in starting Portuguese courses, while the training would be directed at more specific economic terminology. Also there is a Slovak private entity, which named itself the Portuguese Institute and emerged from local people’s need to be in contact with our language.
TSS: How do you assess the tourism potential between the two countries and what do you think Slovakia has to offer Portuguese tourists?
NP: There is potential, but we still need to make more progress. There is now a daily direct flight from Vienna to Portugal, which is convenient since it takes only about three hours to get to Lisbon. Of course I would like to see more Slovaks visiting my homeland and probably they are still not completely aware of what we can offer them. This is a role mainly for tourism agencies on both sides. Since the purchasing power of Slovaks is getting close to the EU average, perhaps they will be able to travel more and Portugal will be on their list of countries.
We need to put tourism at a higher level. Portugal, for example, has excellent hotelier schools and we could cooperate by providing training in them. In Slovakia now the golf sector is growing, which is very interesting for the Portuguese as we are now one of the top countries in Europe for golf. The Portuguese might also be interested in skiing in the High Tatras, since you have competitive prices in your skiing stations.
But without a doubt we do need to increasingly discover each other, because more exposure of the peoples to each other through direct visits will also help integration at the European level.
13. Aug 2012 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová