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UN Security Council backs Guterres for second term

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The United Nations Security Council backed Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (pictured) on Tuesday (8 June) for a second term, recommending that the 193-member General Assembly appoint him for another five years starting 1 January 2022, writes Michelle Nichols.

Estonia's UN ambassador, Sven Jürgenson, council president for June, said the General Assembly was likely to meet to make the appointment on 18 June.

"I am very grateful to the members of the council for the trust they have placed in me," Guterres said in a statement. "I would be deeply humbled if the General Assembly were to entrust me with the responsibilities of a second mandate."

Guterres succeeded Ban Ki-moon in January 2017, just weeks before Donald Trump became U.S. president. Much of Guterres' first term was focused on placating Trump, who questioned the value of the United Nations and multilateralism.

The United States is the largest U.N. financial contributor, responsible for 22 percent of the regular budget and around a quarter of the peacekeeping budget. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has started restoring funding cuts made by Trump to some U.N. agencies and re-engaged with the world body.

A handful of people sought to challenge Guterres, but he was formally unopposed. A person was only considered a candidate once nominated by a member state. Portugal put forward Guterres for a second term, but no one else had the backing of a member state.

Guterres, 72, was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and head of the U.N. refugee agency from 2005 to 2015. As secretary-general, he has been a cheerleader for climate action, COVID-19 vaccines for all and digital cooperation.

When he took the reins as U.N. chief, the world body was struggling to end wars and deal with humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen. Those conflicts are still unresolved, and Guterres is also now faced with emergencies in Myanmar and Ethiopia's Tigray.

New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Guterres to take a more public stand during his second term, noting that his "recent willingness" to denounce abuses in Myanmar and Belarus should be expanded to include "powerful and protected" governments deserving condemnation.

"Guterres's first term was defined by public silence regarding human rights abuses by China, Russia, and the United States and their allies," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres has a "strong stance on defending human rights, speaking up against abuses".

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'It's unfair': British tourists fume as Portugal removed from safe travel list

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Tired of mixed messages, British sunseekers in Portugal reacted with fury and disbelief to their government's decision to reimpose a quarantine regime for travellers coming from the popular southern European destination, write Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira.

Desperate to shake off pandemic blues, John Joyce, from Newcastle, and his family decided to book a holiday in sunny Portugal as soon as Britain added it to the so-called green list of foreign destinations around three weeks ago.

"Everybody needed a little break... a change from being stuck at home," the 44-year-old said as he enjoyed a beer at a restaurant in the heart of Lisbon.

Portugal was the only big beach destination placed on the list, which allowed Britons to travel there without needing to quarantine when returning home. Like Joyce, thousands packed their bags.

But on Thursday Britain shifted Portugal to its amber list due to rising COVID-19 case numbers and the risk of a mutation of the virus variant first discovered in India. Read more ]

"It's a bit unfair," Joyce said. "There are families bringing out kids and people who booked their holidays already...and the stress involved for people, including myself," a visibly annoyed Joyce said.

Charlotte Cheddle, a 22-year-old from England, echoed the same feelings, urging the British government to either "ban international travel completely or communicate properly with people".

People sunbathe on the Luz beach, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Lagos, Portugal, June 3, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes
A Ryanair flight from Manchester arrives at Faro Airport on the first day that Britons are allowed to enter Portugal without needing to quarantine, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions continue to ease, in Faro, Portugal, May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes/File Photo

"It's silly," said Cheddle, who will now have to quarantine for 10 days when she flies back. "We made an effort to get tested privately...We paid for everything and we have done everything to make it safe."

Portugal has lifted most of its lockdown restrictions. The government has been heavily criticised for allowing thousands of mainly maskless English football to party in Porto during the Champions League final last weekend.

Some locals worried it could fuel a spike in cases.

The country of just over 10 million people reported 769 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest daily increase since early April. Total infections now stand at 851,031.

The British government's decision is a huge blow for Portugal's tourism sector, which represents a significant chunk of GDP and has Britain as one of its biggest foreign markets.

"It's not great for businesses but slowly we will get there - or at least I really hope so because our economy is down," said restaurant manager Ana Paula Gomes in Lisbon.

The head of the hotels' association in the touristy Algarve region, Eliderico Viegas, said Britain's move would hit the sector like a "bucket of cold water".

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Portugal's 'Golden Passports'

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Portugal is seen as being one of the market leaders in the highly controversial so-called 'Golden Passport' business, writes Colin Stevens.

This is a lucrative scheme started by several countries as a relatively easy way to attract foreign money after the 2008 financial crisis but criticized by many for attracting criminals and money laundering to the EU.

It is believed that Portugal has so far issued golden visas to more than 25,000 people, earning more than €5.5 billion, with Henley Partners as the agency mandated by the Portuguese government to handle passport applications.

Now, however, fresh pressure is growing on the EU and its member states to put an end to golden visa programmes that give applicants European residency and/ or citizenship.

The European Parliament says that EU citizenship “cannot be marketed as a commodity” while German MEP Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, told this website: “Civil rights come to depend on one’s wallet if they can be bought.”

Since its recovery from the financial crisis and the EU bail-out, Portugal has been promoting an image of “EU´s good student” and “poster boy” of economic reform but the reality of Portuguese politics is often a good deal more convoluted than its shiny “poster boy” image suggests.

Some argue that the golden visa programme is a good case in point.

Portugal’s Golden Residence Permit Programme is a five year investment-based residence process for non-EU nationals which allows visa-free travel in the Schengen Zone of 26 European countries. It requires an average of seven days per year stay in Portugal and, after five years as a resident, an applicant is eligible for citizenship if desired.

Portugal does not currently provide golden visa applicants with citizenship but, rather, gives them residency and the ability to travel unimpeded throughout Europe. But, even so, many have questioned the calibre of people afforded the

Portuguese golden visas. These are people – the vast majority of them Chinese - who have, in turn, invested billions of euros into the country.

Even during the health pandemic, it is estimated that such people invested some €43.5 million in Portugal, the vast bulk of it in property.  It is believed that Portugal issued a total of 993 golden visas between January and September last year alone, with most going to investors from China,  followed by Brazil and the U.S.

Critics, however, say the scheme has forced up property prices and totally changed the face of local communities in Portugal.

One example is a new 55-apartment luxury residential project in downtown Lisbon, where around 40% of the acquisitions were made by golden visa buyers.”

To secure residency, an investor has to invest €500,000 in the Portuguese property market, or €1m in the wider economy, or create a business that employs 10 or more people. Portugal introduced the initiative when mired in a financial crisis and desperate to boost inward investment.

The scheme has brought more than €5 billion of foreign investment into the country, according to latest estimates. And this has led to a property boom in both Lisbon and Porto.

But critics of the scheme, such as Giegold, say applicants are not sufficiently vetted, leading to some foreign criminals getting visas.

It is also argued that not enough jobs have been created as a result of the investment, pointing out that out of all 6,416 wealthy foreigners who were granted a golden visa, only 11 individuals (0.2%) went for the option where they create a business that employs more than 10 people.

Ana Santos, of the University of Coimbra, cautions that the golden visa scheme has led to sky-high prices in the Portuguese residential property market.

The European Commission has opened infringement proceedings against Cyprus and Malta for their golden citizenship programmes.

Giegold is among those who want the commission to take similar action against Portugal. He said, “EU citizenship cannot be marketed as a commodity.Visas are not a commodity. Civil rights come to depend on one’s wallet if they can be bought. The sale of visas violates the values and spirit of European cooperation. Individual countries make money selling visas, but the rights apply to the entire Schengen area.”

He added: “Portugal alone has so far issued golden visas to more than 25,000 people, earning more than €5.5 billion.It is a mistake that Ursula von der Leyen does not want to initiate infringement proceedings against member states who sell visas. Von der Leyen does not do justice to her role as guardian of the EU treaties. Doing nothing is an open invitation to criminals.

“Portugal makes profits from rights which are valid throughout Europe. It is a sign of hope that France and Germany do not participate in this questionable source of income. But all member states are exposed to the security risks that golden visas entail throughout the EU. Golden visas open the door for criminals. They can easily launder their dirty money in the EU and avoid taxes. The EU Commission should immediately initiate infringement proceedings against EU member states with visa sales programmes.”

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Portugal has questions to answer

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The Portuguese judicial system has attracted considerable criticism in recent years and demands for reforms have gained prominence, writes Colin Stevens.

Such calls have gained fresh momentum in recent months following the recent controversial decision to drop serious criminal charges against Portugal's former Prime Minister Jose Socrates.

On 25 May 2019, EPP’s candidate for new Commission president , German Manfred Weber wanted to apply sanctions against Portugal. Right-wing Paulo Rangel and Nuno Melo do not miss a chance to point out that it was a socialist government – at the time led by José Sócrates – that had asked for the intervention of the “troika”(European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank). 

A judge in Lisbon ruled that, more than six years after his arrest in a major corruption investigation, Socrates will stand trial, but only on lesser charges of money laundering and falsifying documents. In a decision that sent shockwaves through the country, the judge dismissed corruption accusations against Socrates as weak, inconsistent or lacking sufficient evidence, and noted that the statute of limitations had run out on some of them.

Rosa also dismissed tax fraud charges against Socrates, who will be tried on three counts of money laundering worth some €1.7 million and three others of faking documents related to service contracts and the purchase and renting of an apartment in Paris.

In a country notorious for its slow justice system, it had actually taken prosecutors three years after Socrates’ initial arrest to formally charge him with 31 crimes allegedly committed in the 2006-2015 period.

Those included financial crimes in an alleged scheme involving the disgraced former head of Banco Espirito Santo (BES), which collapsed in 2014 under a mountain of debt.

BES was the second largest private financial institution in Portugal. Run for nearly 150 years by one of Portugal's most wealthy and powerful families, the Espírito Santo family, its activities included tourism, health and agriculture.

But the bank failed and, in 2014, it had to be rescued and BES was subsequently split into a "good bank", renamed Novo Banco, and a "bad bank". Novo Banco was recapitalised to the tune of €4.9 billion by a special bank Resolution Fund which included €4.4bn from the Portuguese state. It is not known if NB is still receiving money from the Portuguese state.

On 25 January 2019 a letter from Ana Gomes MEP claimed that the BES resolution was steered by the EC and the Troika, so that Portuguese taxpayers would pay, and continue to pay to Lone Star up to €3.9 billion 

But this did little to restore confidence and Novo Banco would later cut 1,000 jobs to help to reduce operating costs by €150 million as part of its EU restructuring plan.

Back in 2011 at the time of his arrest, a photo of Socrates in a police car on his way to face corruption questioning shocked many Portuguese.  Socrates resigned in the middle of his second four-year term in 2011 as an escalating debt crisis forced him to request an international bailout. At about the same time, Portugal’s then Interior Minister Miguel Macedo also quit following yet another investigation into alleged corruption linked to the allocation of residence permits.

So, what do these and other scandals,  such as Mario Centero’s elevation to the post of Governor of the Bank of Portugal in July 2020, tell us about the state of Portugal’s justice system?

Well, the  original indictment accused Socrates of playing a pivotal role and receiving millions of euros in a scheme involving the disgraced former head of the Espirito Santo banking empire. BES may have since ceased to exist but only after its demise inflicted billions of euros in losses on taxpayers and shareholders and with their former top brass having been accused of other crimes in separate investigations.

It was not the first time Socrates, now 63, had found himself at the centre of unwanted headlines. He originally studied to become a civil technical engineer, but that career ended with his dismissal for allegedly shoddy construction. In 2007, a scandal blew up over whether he had ever really got a proper degree. Among his other low points, he fell under suspicion for activity while he was Minister for Environment in 2002, and approved a licence to build a giant mall outside Lisbon, partly on supposedly protected land. Socrates was the object of allegations that illegal payments were made. That corruption case was eventually dropped.

Way back in 2014 Transparency International said the justice system in Portugal was “bottlenecked” with its report adding that inquiries related to the economy, finance and corruption had resulted in very few indictments, let alone prison sentences.

“There is a big problem of lack of efficiency of justice,” it concluded.

According to the latest EU Justice Scoreboard from 2017, Portugal is amongst the EU countries with the highest number of pending civil and commercial cases, with 12 cases per 100 inhabitants, against just 2 in France and 6 in Italy. In recent years alternative means of dispute resolution, such as arbitration, have mushroomed due to the lack of reform and investment in the legal system.

Despite this, little seems to have changed in the intervening years and, in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, Portugal scored a lowly 62/100 and ranks 10th in the European Union and 30th globally.

Some 94% of Portuguese respondents to the 2020 Special Eurobarometer survey on corruption consider corruption widespread in their country (EU average 71%), and 59% of people feel personally affected by corruption in their daily lives (EU average 26%). As regards businesses, 92% of companies consider corruption to be widespread (EU average 63), and 53% of companies consider that corruption is a problem when doing business (EU average 37%).

The EU 2020 Rule of Law report on Portugal  says: “The Portuguese justice system continues to face challenges as regards its efficiency, in particular in administrative and tax courts.
- constraints as regards an effective anti-corruption prosecution result from a lack of resources and specialisation of the law enforcement bodies.”

MEPs are now weighing in to the debate with the EPP Group calling for a European Commission inquiry and action to be taken over serious allegations of an improper process by the Portuguese government concerning the appointment of the Portuguese Prosecutor to the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), which is tasked with fighting crimes against the EU budget.

“The misleading approach used by the Portuguese government to push their preferred candidate for appointment to the newly-formed EPPO is of grave concern. There are questions to be answered over the methods used and the legitimacy of the prosecutor’s appointment in light of this new information”, warned EPP Group Vice-Chairman, Esteban González Pons.

“We are requesting that the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, launches an immediate inquiry into this matter and takes whatever action is necessary to rectify the situation. We do not want to see the mistakes of the Portuguese government unfairly tarnish and damage EPPO at this crucial time. We have made our request in writing to the Commission President”, Pons confirmed, speaking on behalf of his MEP colleagues who co-signed the letter, Monika Hohlmeier and Jeroen Lenaers.

It is vital that the integrity of EPPO is protected, according to MEP Hohlmeier, Chair of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, who adds, “The behaviour of the Portuguese Justice Minister risks the independence and credibility of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. The Portuguese Government should withdraw the candidate, especially at the time when Portugal presides over the Council of the European Union. The selection of Mr Guerra was based on false arguments presented by the Portuguese government and made against the recommendation of the European selection panel."

Elsewhere, in an official  letter to the President of the European Council and the Prime Minister of Portugal - the country that holds the Council presidency - Renew Europe requests an immediate public clarification about this appointment. It must be stated if there has been political interference, then all the information provided about the candidate must urgently be confirmed. If the legitimacy of the appointment fails to be verified, Renew Europe will ask for a debate on this issue during the next plenary session and do not rule out calling for an independent enquiry. 

Renew Europe President Dacian Cioloș, says, “If the reports are correct, then the Council has chosen to appoint a candidate going against the recommendation of the independent selection panel possibly based on false information and for political reasons. In doing so, the Council has potentially jeopardised the functioning of the EPPO.

Prosecutors and judges have intensified a campaign against corruption in a country notorious for its flawed justice system but the Socrates case and such findings will make depressing reading for those who say little has changed, not least for the independence of the judiciary and access to justice for the poor.

In 2016, Joao Costa, director of metal-parts manufacturer Arpial, said, “Justice works terribly, never has worked and I doubt it ever will.”

Today, some judges and entrepreneurs in Portugal say the system was never really fixed and a deeper analysis of case-load data shows it has improved less than the official statistics suggest.

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