Opinion article by Rita Leote, Executive Director of the Portuguese NGDO Platform, which originally appeared in the Portuguese daily newspaper Público. 

The priorities of civil society for the Portuguese EU Council Presidency – listed after hearing approximately 150 Portuguese organisations and the starting point of the “Presidency Project –  Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world”, implemented by the Portuguese NGDO Platform – reinforced our view of what should be the cross-cutting priority in the period: open, transparent and fruitful – coordination and dialogue between the different political, public, private players and civil society, the institutions of the EU member states and third countries.  

The Portuguese Presidency faces pressing challenges, namely the EU’s response to the deepening consequences of the crisis triggered by the pandemic. Consequently, last January 20th, António Costa announced at the European Parliament the main priorities:  promotion of recovery supported by the climate and digital transition, development of the Social Rights of EU citizens and reinforcement of the strategic autonomy of a Europe open to the world. 

The Portuguese NGDO Platform feels that Portugal must help to ensure that the rollout of the vaccines goes according to plan in all EU countries, while guaranteeing that third countries are not left behind. It is therefore critical to ensure that all countries have equal access to Covid-19 vaccines through the implementation of a global vaccination plan. There is also an urgent need to design a fair and equitable plan that weighs in the effects of the pandemic on the economy, namely rising unemployment and worsening of living conditions for many households. Therefore, it is fundamental that the Portuguese Presidency focus on strengthening social cohesion and include in the economic recovery programmes the population groups that are systematically discriminated against in accessing decent jobs: women, youth, migrants and people with disabilities. 

The Portuguese Prime Minister committed to including the social dimension as the core of this approach by placing great emphasis on the “fulfilment of the Social Pillar”. This is why Portugal sent out a positive signal by assuming the importance of the social dimension in European recovery, which civil society believes must guide the answers to impacts of the crisis on EU partner countries – especially in the least developed countries. 

This task requires the involvement of different sectors of society since organized civil society believes it has an important role to play in terms of promoting social cohesion, human rights, equality and democracy. To this end, however, it is necessary to materialise a spirit of cooperation based on formal dialogue mechanisms that accompany the current acknowledgement that civil society organisations have built up expertise in various thematic areas that allows them to play an important role in the political processes at the European level. 

In a world exposed to more and more factors of change, in Europe, where poverty and inequalities persist and autocratic and populist movements grow, it is necessary more than ever to develop policies that promote social justice and help Europe open up more to the world. The implementation of the ambitious agenda of the Portuguese Presidency thus depends on the capacity to rally society around the essential elements of our collective future. Taking into account the spread of threats to democracy, the Portuguese Presidency stands to gain much if it opened up to civil society and committed itself to promoting Education for Development and Global Citizenship as a fundamental tool to counteract intolerance and contempt for Human Rights. Civil Society has, also in this regard, an important role to play. 

To assume the principle of promoting participation and involvement of civil society is also to fulfil the motto that the Government has established for its Presidency, “to act for a fairer, greener and more digital Europe”. Civil society organisations are ready to take part in the process, they have a contribution to make, and they can and must take part in the summits and scheduled meetings.  

The consultation process carried out by the Portuguese NGDO Platform, which involved a very broad range of Portuguese civil society organizations, helped to identify five concrete priorities: Sustain a supportive EU committed to Global Development, prioritizing Human Development and an equitable response to the Covid-19 pandemic; Ensure the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, and the protection of an enabling environment for Civil Society; Implement the European Green Deal, tackling the ecological crisis and fostering a fair climate transition; Adopt human rights-centred migration policies; and Fight against discrimination, inequalities and social exclusion. Once the priorities have been made public, now decision-makers must be willing to listen to the voice of civil society. 

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