SOCIETY Magazine spoke to H.E. Antonio De Almeida Ribeiro, Ambassador of Portugal, about the exemplary support between Portugal and Austria, room for economic improvement and Portugal’s EU-Presidency.
The relations between Portugal and Austria date back to the 15th century, when Kaiser Friedrich III. married the Portuguese princess D. Leonor in 1452. How did these relations evolve until now?
Throughout the centuries, the relations between Portugal and Austria have always been very good and close. The tie was strengthened furthermore by several marriages between the ruling royal families of our two countries. The first one was said marriage between Kaiser Friedrich III and the Royal Princess D. Leonor, the parents of Emperor Maximilian I, a remarkable monarch succeeded by Charles V, the ruler of one of the greatest Empires in European history. Much later, Archduchess Leopoldina of Habsburg was wedded to Royal Prince D. Pedro of Portugal. As Pedro I, D. Pedro became the first Emperor of Brazil in 1822 and King Pedro IV of Portugal in 1926, making Leopoldina the first Empress of Brazil and later Queen of Portugal. Portugal also happened to be the final dwelling of the last Austrian Emperor Charles of Habsburg: In his exile, he retreated to Madeira Island and died there. His remains were buried in 1922, in a chapel devoted to him in the church of Our Lady of the Mount.
After the Second World War, the close and friendly ties that unite Portugal and Austria manifested themselves in the form of humanitarian aid: With the support of Caritas International 4.500 orphaned Austrian children were given the opportunity to spend some time in Portugal, away from the vivid signs of the struggling post-war times. They were accommodated by Portuguese families in a demonstration of solidarity that remains an example for present times. My grandparents were one of those hosting families and the memory of Erika, our host daughter, remains treasured in our collective memory.
Many of those children adopted Portugal as their homeland, others remained for several years, becoming a natural part of their hosting families, while others would return periodically, keeping well alive the bond to their second families. Later, as grownups, they founded the Vienna-based Austrian-Portuguese-Association (ÖPG), which has become the main gathering point for resident Portuguese immigrants. It is touching to see how those now elderly Austrians gather with younger generations of local Portuguese to keep their memories alive, share their love for Portugal and – most importantly – have a chance to practice their Portuguese. All together in a different dimension, both Portugal and Austria belong to the European Union, thus sharing the same fundamental values that characterize our democratic societies. We remain allies and supportive of each other, as just shown very recently: As Portugal suffered the peak of the current Covid-19-pandemic, with an unprecedented number of patients in our intensive care units, the Austrian Government promptly offered support. This gesture was highly appreciated and valued by my Government and must be seen as a standing example of strong solidarity and close friendship between our countries.
Which are the key areas of exchange between Portugal and Austria and where do you see room for improvement?
Relations between Portugal and Austria are excellent in the political, economic and cultural areas, although there is room for improvement especially as far as trade and investment are concerned. Portugal is well known as a gateway to Africa and Latin America, particularly to Portuguese-speaking countries, while Austria remains a hub of fundamental and strategic importance to Eastern Europe and the Balkan area. In my view, the potentials rooting in our geography and mutual history should be better taken into account by the business communities on both sides.
Last year, Portugal’s economic performance was very promising. How is the current crisis influencing this positive development?
All world economies have suffered from the current crisis. By the time the pandemic will be controlled, economies will also have to fully recover and it will be essential to create and develop new synergies, in a common effort to renew the positive trend that we were witnessing until 2020. The European Union is making a huge effort to support the economies of the 27 Member States – a very positive and encouraging factor. There is hope for a rapid recovery in the whole world, yet to achieve this target we must work together and act collectively.
Portugal took on the EU Presidency in January 2021 – a quite demanding role during such difficult times. How do you review the first months of this presidency?
It is perhaps too early to make a final assessment of the results of the Portuguese Presidency. Among the main events that have already taken place, I would like to stress the Social Summit held in Oporto in early May, followed by the High-Level Meeting with India. The Conference on the Future of Europe has also been launched, creating the conditions for an in-depth debate about our own common future.
In general, I can say that we are fully satisfied with our Presidency, since the programme we had established and its main priorities have been developing positively, although some dossiers will inevitably continue to be dealt by the Slovenian and the other future Presidencies. It is how things work in the EU.
But it is obvious that the pandemic has been a great and difficult challenge and diplomatic life is far from returning to normal, at least as we knew it from before. Diplomacy requires personal contacts, an essential part of our job, that unfortunately has practically vanished since the beginning of last year. Things are finally starting to get better, and that is a great hope for better times!