Interview with Antonio Russo Dias, Ambassador of Portugal to Malta on improving links between the two countries
As the Portuguese Presidency of the EU begins, kicking off an active six months of goings on within the bloc, Portuguese Ambassador to Malta, Antonio Russo Dias is confident that Malta stands to gain considerably from the changes proposed in the EU Treaty apart from increased trade links with his country.
I was welcomed into Russo Dias’ office at the Portuguese Embassy in Whitehall Mansions, feeling immediately at ease with the man, immaculately attired in a cream suit but affable and open to extensive discussion.
My first question regarded the possibility of increasing trade and business links with Portugal through its EU Presidency.
“I don’t think that the fact that Portugal has the EU Presidency now will be a factor in improving trade and economic links between Malta and Portugal. However there is a bilateral plan to improve these relations with the recent opening of embassies in the respective countries so, yes there certainly is the will to improve links. There might be increased awareness of Portugal through the EU Presidency but not a direct link, at least in my opinion”.
Are trade links sufficient between the two countries, and how can these be improved?
“Most certainly not! We are both partners in the EU but I have to candidly admit that links between Malta and Portugal are very weak and leave a lot to be desired. However we are moving forward as before we opened the embassy here in September 2005, bilateral trade was virtually nil apart from an important Maltese investment in Portugal through the Corinthia Hotel Group, in practical terms that was it. The rest of the trade focused chiefly on food imports and exports but even that was very irregular. Now things are very different, just over one and a half years later and things are moving forward. One cannot really say that the opening of embassies had everything to do with the increased links but they certainly played an important part. Still, there is a lot left to be done”.
Mr Russo Dias then referred to one of the most important investments to take place in Malta hailing from Portugal, the establishment of Banif bank in our country.
“This is an important milestone for Portuguese-Maltese relations as you know that if a financial institution chooses to invest in a country, it is definite that this country is held in high esteem by the bank’s owners. You don’t open a bank everyday so this implies confidence and trust in that country’s institutions. As an embassy, we were not initially involved in the discussions but now with the opening of resident embassies in the respective countries, the possibility of such high profile investments has increased considerably”.
The ambassador refers to Portugal’s decision to open resident embassies in the 10 new acceding countries as an important milestone in increasing trade and business relations.
“We are now represented in all the member states of the European Union and this indicates that we give each country equal importance, be it Malta as the smallest country or Germany and France. However apart from trade links, there is the political aspect, which is important. Since I have been based in Malta, President Fenech Adami has visited Portugal twice and if you go back three years, he was there three times as he had attended the opening of the new Corinthia Hotel in Lisbon. It is interesting to observe that both President Fenech Adami and our President were both Prime Ministers so their relationship goes back some way. Your President will also be visiting officially in the near future, not actually a state visit but he will be received as Head of State. Prime Minister Gonzi was also in Portugal recently to discuss several issues in relation to the Portuguese Presidency so the relations between the two countries are now pretty much on solid footing”.
What is the ambassador’s personal experience of Malta, which is quite similar to Portugal up to a point?
“Although Portugal is strictly speaking an Atlantic country, we obviously share quite a lot of traditional aspects including the Mediterranean link. But it is not only that as we also have historical links that go back thousands of years. Those peoples who invaded Malta were also in Malta and here I am referring to the Phoenicians and Arabs as distinct examples so there is a mixing and sharing of cultures. And obviously the weather in Southern Portugal is quite similar to Malta. For us Portuguese, it is very easy to settle in Malta and to feel good in Malta. I have also observed that Malta is a good place to live – at least that’s what my experience has been so far”.
But what about the tourism market which is distinctly weak between both countries, and how can this be improved through EU accession three years on?
“This is one of the weak points, which we have to work on quite substantially but the major problem is that there is no direct air-link between the two countries. This has also an effect on the face of changing tourism today where you have the so-called ‘weekend tourist’, shorter stays and more frequent trips so the problem of the air link is quite substantial. Modern tourists are not enthused by the same destination, they want a different holiday every year; the days of the three-week holiday every year are over. Today, tourists go to their tour operator with just a couple of days on their agenda and see what destinations are on offer. When one comes to travel to Portugal from Malta and vice versa, you waste practically one day to go and one day to come, so that’s already two days shaved off from your agenda. It’s at least a 7 hour journey both ways as you have to make stopovers in Milan or Frankfurt and the time between connections takes time. The fact that there is no direct flight between both countries is bad for tourism”.
But is something being done to improve the links between the two countries in terms of air travel and what can really be done?
“At the embassy we are slightly limited to intervene but I can say that as soon as I arrived, there was a lot of talk on the possibility of low cost airlines operating to Malta but so far not much has been achieved although three destinations have been earmarked which are Lisbon, Oporto and Farao in the South. Of course, I spoke to our national carrier, Air Portugal but they are not really interested in flying to Malta due to small volumes and they fly intercontinental flights mainly to Africa (Portuguese Africa such as Angola and Mozambique and South Africa) and Brazil. I would earnestly like to do something to improve the situation, as it is certain that tourism would increase exponentially. Tourism between both countries is increasing, as there are big companies who are operating charter flights but it’s not increasing enough and we shall continue working to improve the figures”.
Portugal has made considerable success out of its membership of the EU. Could the same happen to Malta although we joined much later and under very different circumstances?
“You cannot really compare the Portugese experience as when we joined in 1985, there were only ten member states whereas with Malta, the EU became 25 countries overnight. But it’s not only that as the international circumstances have changed considerably and we live in a totally different world these days. However, Malta can also profit from this experience by learning to avoid the mistakes that were perhaps prevalent in the earlier years of the EU. The union as a bloc is changing, there are much more countries and are much more integrated with a common currency, the Schengen agreement and also the new constitutional treaty which should hopefully continue integrating relations and hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of the past”.
Finally, what are we to expect from the Portuguese Presidency of the EU in the next six months?
“It is going to be a very active presidency, that’s for sure and it forms part of a trio of presidencies together with Germany which came before us and Slovenia which comes after us. The presidency is based on four pillars, which are; the future of Europe, the Lisbon agenda or the environmental and social dimensions, Europe as an area of freedom and security (including the fight against terrorism and human trafficking) and finally external relations of Europe. We are particularly ambitious on the last point as we are planning summits with China, India and Brazil, the three large emerging countries. There will also be the second EU-Africa summit, which should have been held earlier but as you know there were problems with Zimbabwe in the past years. However we will go ahead with the summit after 7 years and are confident that it will be a success. Regarding issues that will involve Malta, we are planning to be very active on illegal immigration, but not just reading African countries but also Eastern European transfers. We will be stressing legal immigration and hope to regulate the situation as much as possible. This implies coming to the very roots of the problem, which are poverty and wars, which create displacement. But we also have to work at home by punishing those European entrepreneurs who are practically enslaving these workers leaving them without rights and paying them below subsistence wages”.
Mr Russo Dias explained that with regards the new EU treaty, an intergovernmental conference is planned within a month, the final agreement is planned for October and the eventual approval planned for December.
He also expresses concern on stability within the Mediterranean.
“I am worried about the increasingly unstable situation in this region with the ongoing Middle East conflict, wars in the Horn of Africa and other problems so Portugal will also be pushing these concerns forward in hope of finding a solution that will create peace”.
An ambitious programme indeed, but with Mr Russo Dias at the helm, the communication has already started and this is an ideal stepping stone for increasing our links with Portugal as we continue to grow within the EU.