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Portugal’s Antonio Costa expected to be next head of European Council

By Thomson Reuters Jun 17, 2024 | 1:18 PM

By Sergio Goncalves

LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s Antonio Costa has long been building support among European peers to become the president of the European Council, hoping his skills as a pragmatic negotiator will help him win the job.

Costa, 62, stepped down as Portugal’s prime minister last November over an investigation into alleged illegalities in his government’s handling of several large investment projects.

But Costa has denied wrongdoing, was never charged with a crime and is the frontrunner to succeed Belgium’s Charles Michel as the person who chairs summits of the 27 EU national leaders at which the bloc’s political agenda is set.

In that role, Costa would have to have to build bridges between heads of state and government in a fragmented Europe with the far right on the rise.

Although his chief of staff was briefly arrested, the prosecutors’ case has largely fallen apart after judges at Lisbon’s Court of Appeal and Portugal’s ombudswoman said the investigation was based on speculation, not evidence.

While the centre-right European People’s Party is expected to put forward Ursula von der Leyen for another term at the helm of the European Commission, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats were set to propose Costa at an informal dinner on Monday to lead the Council.

Former European Commission chief Jose Manuel Durão Barroso, a fellow Portuguese, told El Español newspaper on Sunday that Costa’s name “generates the most agreement, clearly, in the Socialist family and also outside it”.

‘OPEN SECRET’

Costa’s appetite for a top European position has been an open secret for years. In March 2022, amid speculation Costa was angling for a Brussels job, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa warned him that he would call an election if he were to leave his post early.

Costa now has the support of the new conservative premier, Luis Montenegro, the blessing of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and is one of the centre-left candidates who generates the least opposition from the far right.

He also has a good relationship with Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban – as evidenced by an unannounced stopover he made in Budapest in May 2023 to watch a soccer final alongside his counterpart on Orban’s birthday.

“He’s a guy who knows how to find common ground with others and doesn’t generate ‘antibodies’…He knows how to talk to his opponents and even his enemies,” said political scientist Adelino Maltez of Lisbon University.

Maltez also lauded Costa’s overall negotiating skills, pragmatism and “the art of inspiring trust”.

Costa came to power in Portugal in 2015 following a 2011-14 debt crisis, and had served as mayor of Lisbon. He has presided over a period of steady economic growth that led to budget surpluses, while criticising the austerity imposed on several EU countries including Portugal in 2010-11.

Joao Duque, dean of the ISEG school of economics and management, said Costa “is more of an excellent tactician” than a strategist, while his friendly manner and patience is very important in negotiations.

(Reporting by Sergio Goncalves; editing by Andrei Khalip)