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In close cooperation with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Portugal, the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (BGIPU) hosted a parliamentary delegation from Portugal to the Palace of Westminster from 9-11 June 2014. The visit served to highlight the long-standing and historic nature of relations between Portugal and the United Kingdom and the many common perspectives and interests shared by parliamentarians in both countries. Portuguese delegates expressed strong support for the UK remaining an EU member, including as an active partner for Portugal and others in pursuing EU reform efforts.
The delegation comprised members of the Portugal-UK Parliamentary Friendship Group of the Assembly of the Republic (Assembleia da Republica) led by its Chair, Deputy Antonio Rodrigues (Social Democratic Party - PSD). This included the Friendship Group Vice Chairs Dep. Cecilia Meireles (Democratic and Social Centre – People’s Party - CDS-PP) and Dep. Sergio Sousa Pinto (Socialist Party - PS), Dep. Nuno Encarnacao (PSD) and Dep. Rui Paulo Figueiredo (PS). They were accompanied by Parliamentary Advisor, Ms Patricia Sarrea Grave and Mr Jose Galaz from the Embassy of Portugal in London. The Ambassador of Portugal to the UK, HE Joao de Vallera also actively participated in the programme.
The programme commenced on 9 June with a meeting with the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons, Mr William Cash MP with a detailed discussion about UK approaches to the European Union which was the major topic of discussion of the visit. The visiting delegation highlighted the importance they placed on continued UK membership of the European Union, noting Portugal had many common perspectives with the UK, including shared concerns over the future direction of EU economic, social and security policies.
Noting rising public scepticism about European institutions, including as reflected in the outcomes of the recent European Parliamentary elections, members of the Portuguese delegation highlighted the importance of an active UK voice within the EU, continuing to push for reform to address many of the deep-seated problems facing the EU. Mr Cash outlined some of his perceptions of the challenges facing the EU but noted there remained a diversity of opinion within the UK Parliament reflecting a wide spectrum of views. Nevertheless, he registered the firm commitment of the Conservative Party to seek a referendum on the future of UK membership of the Union to give the British people a decisive say on this issue.
Members of the Portugal APPG of the UK Parliament, led by Lord Dubs, met the delegation for a welcome event in the Peers Dining Room followed by a reception at the Portuguese-owned Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel hosted by the UK-Portugal Chamber of Commerce. The events highlighted the strong people-to-people links between the UK and Portugal, including joint efforts to maintain cultural heritage through the Friends of the Lines de Torres Vedras, which help to preserve and promote the defensive forts built by the UK and Portugal to defend Lisbon during the Peninsula War (1807-14). The reception also highlighted the contribution of the 350,000 strong Portuguese community in the UK particularly through celebration of Portuguese cuisine, culture and music.
On 10 June, the delegation were able to learn more about the rich history of the Palace of Westminster through a tour hosted by Mr Chris Ruane MP. This was followed by an extensive briefing on the workings of the UK Parliament by the Clerk of the Overseas Office of the House of Commons, Mr Crispin Poyser in which Portuguese delegates were interested in hearing about the role of the House of Lords and its relationship with the House of Commons, including how they both interact in the passage of legislation and how these relations have evolved over time.
On 11 June, BGIPU and the Portugal APPG convened a roundtable discussion with the delegation to consider a wide range of mutual issues. The key focus was the future of the European Union, including questions over reform efforts and the proposed referendum on UK membership. While having a diversity of views on the challenges facing the EU, the Portuguese delegation were united in expressing strong support for the role of the United Kingdom in the EU, noting that the UK and Portugal shared many common perspectives on Europe, and Portugal saw uncertainty over the UK’s continued membership as a serious impediment to the future success of the EU.
Members of the delegation said both countries shared concerns over renewed threats to peace and security in Europe and some of the inward-looking and overly-intrusive social and economic policies being generated out of the Commission in Brussels. A unified and robust EU response to developments in Ukraine was seen as important and the UK contribution was seen by Portugal as vital. In addition, both the UK and Portugal shared concerns about the restrictions and red-tape the EU bureaucracy imposed on the private sector and the limits being placed ultimately on economic sovereignty, particularly for smaller member states of the Eurozone. EU policies were in need of radical reform and Portugal saw the UK influence as essential to getting the sorts of outcomes Portugal wanted to see for the benefit of all members for the future. There remained key economic challenges, particularly the central question of youth unemployment and the importance of job creation. For the time being, Portugal had seen some benefits of tough decisions taken under the auspices of EU economic restructuring and austerity measures and its economy was showing signs of recovery, albeit not yet as strong as the growth being seen in the UK.
On the bilateral relationship, the people to people and tourism links between the UK and Portugal were seen as central to the relationship and economic links remained strong with the UK ranking as Portugal’s fourth largest importer and sixth largest supplier with the overall balance of trade in Portugal’s favour. The UK was an important source of direct investment in Portugal, ranked second, and tourism continued to grow with a 9.5 percent increase in UK arrivals last year totalling more than 2 million visitors annually. Discussions were followed by the delegation observing Prime Minister’s Question Time. This was followed by a working lunch chaired by Baroness Meacher on drug policy reform issues where UK parliamentarians complemented Portuguese counterparts for the innovative approaches adopted in the country in recent years. Members of both countries agreed the next challenge is to tackle the ongoing creation of new synthetic drugs and to work on preventing under age consumption of drugs.
The BGIPU Secretariat is very grateful to all who contributed to the success of this visit, particularly Lord Dubs and other members of the very active APPG for Portugal and the Ambassador and staff of the Embassy of Portugal to the United Kingdom.