Whatís OnAmbassador, can you give us a bit of background please. Where were you before Ukraine?
Mario Jesus dos Santos Before this I was Portuguese ambassador in Bulgaria, Principe (an old Portuguese colony) and Gabon. I came to Kyiv two and a half years ago.
WOWhat were your first impressions of the city?
MS I was positively surprised! I must confess that I was a little worried before I came. I didnít know much about the country or the city, but itís beautiful, especially in the spring and the summer. The people come outdoors, and I like the way there are people everywhere. Itís a living town, with good restaurants and a good cultural life, so yes, Iím very happy to be here.
WOTell us about Portugalís economic relationship with Ukraine. Is there a lot of Portuguese investment here?
MS No, not really, but the relationship is developing. During the last five to six years the Ukrainian community in Portugal has grown to be the second largest in the world. In the business sphere the two countries are a little far away from each other. Portugal is a small economy that is now oriented firmly towards Europe and the EU. Weíve developed relations and have significant investments in EU countries, such as Poland. But investment here is limited. We have only three investments, the biggest of which is a cement factory in Odesa. Another is based in Rivne, producing medical fabrics. Finally, we have a factory in Kharkiv that makes containers for transporting liquid fuel.
WOYou mentioned the Ukrainian diaspora in Portugal. How has that come about?
MS There was a natural movement of Ukrainians into Europe over the past few years. Many went to Spain. Others went further. Those who have settled in Portugal are happy there. Even in the last few years, when the financial crisis hit, they have wanted to stay, because they have a good life there.
WOIs Portugal still happy to accept Ukrainians?
MS Yes, but the problem now is that the economy has little capacity to absorb them. People now find that they canít find jobs and they face difficulties. Unemployment is at more than 11% and the economy has slowed. It affects everybody. For now there are no social problems as a result of this.
WOHow have Ukrainians arrived in such numbers over the past few years?
MS We tried to promote legal immigration, and tried to stop illegal immigration, but we cannot totally control this. Last year about 80,000 Ukrainians came to Portugal, of these just over 50,000 were legal. If people come to Portugal illegally they cannot expect to have the same rights. For example, some people apply for visas and say they are visiting family, but they do so expecting to stay. Last year we tried to implement a new project with the Ukrainian authorities. We tried to find Ukrainian migrants jobs for six months, after which they came back to Ukraine with the skills they had gained. It worked well, in fact the Ukrainians are talking to us about re-launching it, but we need money for this project to continue.
WOHas Portugal gone through the process of a shrinking population?
MS Throughout our history we have always had people migrating into Portugal. I think about 40% of our population are immigrants. We have always had a big African community, and a small Indian community. And in recent years weíve had lots of Brazilians and Ukrainians.
WOHas the Portuguese policy on immigration changed with the crisis?
MS No, the policy hasnít changed, but the economic situation has. If there are no jobs, it affects immigration, because immigrants are like everybody Ė they need to work. We have found some Brazilians are returning home, because Brazil has developed and there are many opportunities across the Atlantic for them. Another problem we have is that young people leaving university are finding difficulties getting their first job, so if there is an opportunity elsewhere in the EU, they will go where the opportunities are.
WOPortugal has been hit hard by the crisis: what is your outlook for the future?
MS I have no crystal ball, but I believe Europe will find a solution. I think the current system is the best we have. To have so many countries living together in a community is a big achievement. Sure, the world is moving every day and we face problems, but trade within Europe remains important. Our economy depends on trade. We are not self-sufficient, so we depend on exports.
WOWhat does Portugal export?
MS Our biggest exports are wine, olive oil, cork, textiles, shoes and technology. We also build cars for large European car manufacturers, such as Volkswagen. We have invested in renewable energy, such as hydro-electric. But we now have to reduce our national debt considerably in the next two to three years, so exports will become even more important for us to pay off the loans and the interest. Itís a concern because the recession has meant cuts, and we are in negative growth.
WOWill making cuts at home not hurt growth?
MS Itís a balance, thatís why itís important to address the structural aspects of the economy too. If you cut internal demand at a time when external demand drops, what do you have? All of Europe has the same problem. The economies are fragile in that way. But we must have faith that we can solve the problem.
WOLooking at Ukraine, the IMF wants the government to remove gas subsidies, but many people cannot afford market rate. How do you think this helps?
MS Itís a delicate situation. Technically speaking, this is one solution proposed, but we must be very careful about the social impact. My personal view is that a government must try to avoid imposing measures that hit the poorest, and they must try to distribute the impact of any cuts across society. As I said, itís a balance.
WOUkraine has a small number of exceptionally wealthy people, and the rest are very poor. But the IMF has not asked Ukraine to tax the wealthy. Can you understand that?
MS Itís something for the Ukrainian government to manage and negotiate, but at home in Portugal we believe that the government must try to balance the sacrifices. The IMF will always look at the macroeconomic figures, such as the cost to the government of gas subsidies. But the government will need time to introduce something like this, and I think they are trying to find ways to compensate people. But this is a big country, with huge resources, so I think they will find a solution.
WOWeíve spoken about the EU. Whatís Portugalís view on Ukraineís membership?
MS We believe Ukraine is a European country and we want to be part of the solution. We want to help where we can, but the country needs to live by the rule of law and abide by the standards of the European UNI0N first and foremost.
WODo you see a change in commitment since the new administration came into power?
MS The new administration says it is committed and they know it will take time. The free-trade agreement is a natural step, but there is still a long way to go after this. To integrate Ukrainian society into European society will take many little changes. But I do believe the current government is committed to joining the EU.
WOHow do you think the current trials of opposition leaders will affect this?
MS They must be aware that the judiciary has to be independent, not selective. They need to demonstrate to Europe that the rule of law is healthy here, not only with words but actions. We must remember that Ukraine is still a very young country. Twenty years for a society is nothing. They must develop their society themselves Ė Ukrainians must make Ukraine. If they look to Europe for help, we must be ready to help, but they must be ready to take action themselves.
WOHow does Portugal view tourist visas for young people?
MS We abide by the rules of the Schengen Agreement. However, the refusal of visas is very rare, no more than 1-2%. If young people want to come, thatís no problem. It is only when there is a risk of illegal immigration, for example when people have fake documents.
WOWith the huge Ukrainian diaspora, are you developing Portugal as a holiday destination for Ukrainians?
MS Yes, this is something that we need to develop further. There are other destinations like Greece and Turkey that are nearer to Ukraine, so the travel costs will always be less. But we have the opportunity to develop the industry for Ukrainians who are able to travel to Portugal, especially the luxury end.
WOAnd finally, what do you like to do in your free time, and where?
MS I take walks every day with my wife, itís wonderful! In Lisbon itís terrible because there are so many hills! But here itís fine. Every weekend we like to get outside the city and enjoy the countryside and the restaurants. I like to play tennis too. I enjoy this quiet side of life. It gives a good balance to the busy social side of diplomatic life.