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Portugal just elected its weakest government in decades but Ukraine is still a matter of consensus

Most of Portugal’s foreign policy has been driven by its status as a member state of both NATO and the EU. Although geographically removed from the battlefield, Portuguese society is one of the most ardent believers in a Ukrainian victory. Even at a time of profound change in the political landscape, support for Kyiv will remain solid.

May 13, 2024 - João Ruela Ribeiro - Articles and Commentary

A night view of Praça do Comércio in Lisbon, with the monument illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in February 2022. Photo: Shutterstock

In the run up to the Portuguese legislative elections on March 10th, there were 29 televised debates between the leaders of the main political parties. One can also add two debates on the radio and a myriad of interviews published in every newspaper and online. There were even a couple of interviews with some of the most famous influencers and entertainment hosts in Portugal, a rare innovation in political campaigns.

Yet there was not a single mention of foreign policy among these uncountable hours of political debate. Not even one, with the anecdotal exception of the leader of a very small fringe party (the Marxist PCTP-MRPP), with no parliamentary representation, during a debate with other minuscule parties. The representative of this group described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “civil war”. Hardly the most effective position to start any meaningful conversation.

With discussions about foreign policy largely absent from the debates among the main contenders, one would be excused for believing that this was a political campaign held before February 24th 2022. For many analysts, the lack of any meaningful discussion on issues like the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East is surprising and worrying.

“In a scenario of normality, it is only natural that during political campaigns each party seeks to underline the issues that separate itself from the others, and not the other way around,” said Nuno Severiano Teixeira, director of the Portuguese Institute of Foreign Relations (IPRI) and former defence minister between 2005 and 2009. Despite this, he quickly added that these times are far from normal.

“We are living through a period of two wars at the gates of Europe, and it was a big surprise for me that there was not any debate about these conflicts, or about the positions Portugal should take in this context, either regarding Ukraine or the Middle East,” explains Teixeira.

Historical consensus

Almost since the beginning of the democratic era, Portuguese foreign policy has been an area of broad consensus between the main political parties. Even though governments may change, the main tenets over which Portuguese foreign policy has been conducted over the last four decades have been generally the same: multilateralism, European and transatlantic integration, the promotion of relations with Portuguese-speaking countries, and the defence of human rights around the world.

This feature has long been considered an advantage that made it possible for a small peripheral country to conduct cohesive and solid diplomacy and even, at some points, to punch above its weight. One good example is the decisive role played by Lisbon in shedding light on the abuses committed by the Indonesian authorities that occupied East Timor in the late 1990s.

This consensus among the main political parties on foreign policy is closely related to the foundation of democratic governance after the 1974 Carnation Revolution. A group of young military officers toppled the right-wing dictatorship known as Estado Novo (New State), which lasted for more than four decades, in about 24 hours. After the democratic transition, the great purpose of Portugal’s young democracy was to become a member of the European Union, a goal which united both the Socialist Party (PS, centre-left) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD, centre-right).

“Portugal’s European integration is the cornerstone of democratic consolidation, and democracy is the source of legitimacy of Portugal’s accession to the EU,” says Teixeira. That goal would be accomplished in 1986, a little more than a decade after the demise of the dictatorship.

Since then, Portugal has based much of its positioning in world affairs on its European integration, alongside its transatlantic tradition as a NATO founding member. It has been grounding its policies regarding the war in Ukraine on these foundations.

“Since the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, Portugal, following the spirit of transatlantic and European solidarity, has been on Ukraine’s side,” says Daniel Marcos, professor at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of the New University in Lisbon (FCSH-UNL). “First of all, by condemning the external aggression which threatened Ukraine’s sovereignty, and, secondly, by giving its allies who border Russia assurances that Portugal will be as assertive as possible regarding the security of NATO and EU territory,” he adds.

In the last two years, Portugal, as a member of the EU, has been a part of the bloc’s efforts in assisting Ukraine, contributing almost 500 million euros in financial aid according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. In terms of direct military assistance, Lisbon has allocated only 70 million euros. However, the Portuguese military has been quite active through its presence on NATO’s front lines, particularly in Romania and the Baltics.

This pattern of limited support – compared with European countries of similar size in Central Europe, for instance – is consistent with Portugal’s national interests and geopolitical situation. Located at the far-western point of the EU, it is understandable that Lisbon’s immediate priorities on the diplomatic and security fronts are the Atlantic, Western Europe and North Africa. Despite this, as stated above, by being a part of both the EU and NATO, Portugal’s interests are heavily influenced by the interests of these organizations.

Strong support among Portuguese

One important aspect of Lisbon’s outlook is the level of support for Ukraine in Portugal, as measured by cross-national polls. The latest of these studies published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (February 2024) showed Portugal to be one of the greatest supporters of a Ukrainian victory among European countries: 17 per cent compared with an average of ten per cent among ten European countries. This poll showed a very pessimistic outlook among European electorates, with an notable section of societies believing that Russia will win the conflict. However, in Portugal, only 11 per cent – the lowest figure among countries polled – anticipate such an outcome.

At the same time, a strong majority in Portugal agree that Europe should support Ukraine until all the occupied territories are taken back. Only in Sweden (50 per cent) is there more support for this goal than in Portugal (48 per cent). The number of Portuguese (23 per cent) who think the EU should force Kyiv into negotiations is also the lowest in this poll and it is considerably lower than the average amount of people (41 per cent) who share this view.

These results may seem surprising but they reflect the strong political consensus regarding the war in Ukraine. Among the main political parties, only the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) has been an opponent of Lisbon’s support of Ukraine and an advocate of immediate negotiations with Russia. In the latest elections, PCP had a historically low result, losing two seats, and even though there are other structural explanations explaining the party’s decay in recent years, its hesitation in condemning Russia’s aggression and its overall position regarding Ukraine’s invasion have been major sources for this political backlash.

The political and social consensus regarding Ukraine in Portugal will most certainly endure even after the change in government. The March legislative elections created one of the most fragmented parliaments in recent years. Even though the number of political parties represented is the same, the share of the vote between the two main parties – PS and PSD – is less than 60 per cent. But the main change in the political landscape was the strengthening of Chega (“Enough”), a populist extreme right-wing political party, which saw its parliamentary group grow from 19 to 50 seats.

Ever since the electoral campaign, PSD’s leader Luís Montenegro has stated that he would rule out any kind of political alliance with Chega and now, as prime minister, he has kept that promise. This means that the PSD government is being sustained by a very narrow parliamentary minority – just two more seats than PS – and must negotiate every piece of legislation that it might want to approve. The overall assessment is that the new government will have a very limited lifespan since it can be easily voted out.

Nevertheless, foreign policy and Ukraine in particular will not be a major source of divergence, even in such a fragmented scenario.

A bridge between West and South?

A matter of some debate has been Portugal’s unique position as a possible mediator between the collective West and what is today known as the Global South in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The striking differences in tone and perspective between members of both geopolitical realms regarding the Russian invasion has been widely noted in the media. The US and its European allies are frustrated, and at times concerned, with many countries’ reluctance to openly condemn the aggression and to penalize Moscow accordingly.

Based on Portugal’s close ties with many countries of the Global South, particularly Portuguese-speaking states like Brazil, Angola or Mozambique, one may argue that these connections could facilitate a dialogue. The logic behind such talks could be that many democracies in the Global South are not grasping the full extent of Russia’s aggression, dismissing it as a mere European affair.

One obvious problem concerning this approach is the sheer breadth of the concept of the Global South. It encompasses some of the largest economies in the world, like India or Brazil, and some of the least developed countries. The group also includes full-fledged democracies, like Argentina and Cape Verde, and authoritarian regimes, like Venezuela and Egypt.

But even ignoring these substantial problems, the very notion of Portugal, or even another western country, working as some kind of mediator regarding such a big geopolitical issue like the invasion of Ukraine seems misguided. “I won’t deny the notion that Portugal is one of the [western] countries with more knowledge about those [Portuguese-speaking] countries, with the diplomatic ability to influence some decisions, and particularly in establishing contact points between European countries and Brazil or African nations of Portuguese language,” says Daniel Marcos.

However, he points out that this is an idea that Portugal reinforces mostly from a “rhetorical point of view” in order to establish it as a “distinctive” feature of its foreign policy. “Otherwise, Portuguese foreign policy wouldn’t be more than a mere continuity of Portugal’s membership in NATO and the EU.”

João Ruela Ribeiro is a journalist at Público, a Portuguese daily newspaper, where he has been covering Russia, Eastern Europe and South America for almost a decade.

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