November 21, 2023

Interview with Rui Faria da Cunha: “Agrifood has great potential for growth”

Portuguese people who stand out abroad are helping to find out where business opportunities are and what kind of companies and activities the country can attract. An initiative that brings together Negócios and the Portuguese Diaspora Council.

1- What led you to leave Portugal?

I left Portugal in 1995, aged 26, heading to Macau. After growing up and studying in Coimbra, where I graduated in law, I started my career as a lawyer in an office in Pombal. I think that even today I could be working in the same office, where I easily integrated, if it weren’t for my fascination with Macau, where I had family and where I left in 1995, to work as a lawyer and notary. Despite the initial shock and missing my family, I never questioned my decision to leave, which allowed me to grow personally and professionally much faster than if I had stayed in Portugal. With their departure, a fascinating new world opened up, full of news and opportunities. Meanwhile, 28 years have passed, and he continues to live and work abroad.

2- What advantages or disadvantages did being Portuguese bring you?

Between 1995 and 2003, when I lived and worked in Macau, being Portuguese brought me immense advantages. Portugal and the Portuguese were, in general, well regarded by the local population, despite evident cultural and linguistic differences. At least until the transfer of sovereignty, in December 1999, the Portuguese residing in the territory, the majority with higher education, occupied relevant positions in public administration or practiced professions such as law or medicine. The reality of my return to Europe, in 2003, was totally different. Whether in Belgium or Luxembourg, where I visited before settling in Brussels, the image that local populations have of Portugal is that of a peripheral and poor country, with a low-skilled workforce. Fortunately, this perception has been changing in recent years, with the most recent waves of qualified emigration and the modernization of our country. However, prejudices persist towards the Portuguese, which systematically forces us to stand out in order to be accepted by our peers.

3- What obstacles did you have to overcome and how did you do it?

The language and culture of the host country are often obstacles to our integration. Studying the language and being open to the culture of the country that receives us is not only a demonstration of respect, but also, to a large extent, a strategy for survival and development. That’s what I tried to do in the countries I’ve been through and where I’m based. In Belgium, one of the obstacles I had to overcome, at the beginning, was my nationality. It was very rare, and still is, for a Portuguese lawyer to settle in Brussels, which caused some strangeness, and even distrust, among my peers. This circumstance, however, ended up being my competitive advantage, by repositioning and promoting my services as a Portuguese-speaking lawyer, instead of becoming just another local lawyer.

4- What do you admire most about the country you’re in?

Belgium is a relatively young (less than 200 years old) and small (in size) country, with a population of around 11 million inhabitants, who speak three official languages and live in three autonomous regions. Despite the complex constitutional architecture, and cultural and linguistic diversity, which creates tensions between regions and their inhabitants, Belgium has managed, with remarkable success, to maintain its cohesion and growth over the years. The well-known Belgian surrealism and sense of humour may explain this phenomenon.

5- What do you admire most about your company/organization?

The freedom, independence, and autonomy that my office gives me are the characteristics that I appreciate most. After having worked in large firms, I found in the small structure that I created the true essence of law as a liberal profession, where flexibility, autonomy and creativity contribute to personal satisfaction and development and are reflected in the quality of the services provided.

6- What recommendations would you give to Portugal and its entrepreneurs and managers?

Despite having joined the European Union in 1986, Portugal, especially the private sector, has remained inexplicably distant from Brussels, despite being the decision-making centre for European policies that affect all European companies and citizens. In Portugal, the term “lobby” continues to be viewed with suspicion and is often associated with corruption or influence peddling. In Brussels, it is a regulated profession, carried out by around 25,000 professionals duly registered and subject to a European Union code of conduct. These lobbyists are an essential part of the legislative process, contributing decisively to the formulation of public policies that are taken after hearing the positions of interest representatives who have made their voices heard. In the transparency register, in which those who wish to influence the legislative process are registered, around 12,500 entities are currently registered. Of these, only 178 are Portuguese, which corresponds to just 1.42%. Caricatured, in a discussion about public policies, out of every 100 contributions, only 1.42 are of Portuguese origin, which is clearly insufficient. Our neighbour Spain has 807 entities registered in the register. It is essential that Portuguese business organizations are closer to the European Union’s decision-making centre and actively participate in the definition of its policies. If it is true that presence has a cost, it is even more certain that the cost of absence is certainly higher. Or, as they say in Brussels, whoever isn’t sitting at the table in a discussion is because it’s on the menu.

7- In which sectors of the country where you live can Portuguese companies find clients?

In addition to the traditional areas of textiles, furniture and footwear, which enjoy an excellent reputation in Belgium, the agrifood sector has great potential for growth, only needing to invest more in promotion. Computer services and tourism have also seen notable growth, and there is room for continued growth. The excellent work that has been developed by AICEP and Turismo de Portugal in the region has borne fruit. The Belgian-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce, of which I am president, has also made a modest contribution.

8- In which sectors in Portugal might companies from the country where you reside want to invest?

Belgium is among the 10 largest investors in Portugal, with a marked growth trend in the last two years and, predictably, in the coming years. The sectors where there is the greatest investment by Belgian companies are real estate, retail, energy, transport, and financial services. The Portuguese government’s ambitious plan for the exploration of offshore renewable energy is expected to attract particular interest from Belgian companies, with long experience in the sector.

9- What is the competitive advantage of the country you are in that could be replicated in Portugal?

Belgium’s greatest competitive advantage is its strategic geographic location in the heart of Western Europe, which allows it to be a logistics platform capable of serving 500 million European consumers. If it is not possible to replicate this advantage, Portugal can draw inspiration from other strengths of the Belgian economy, namely the investment in the qualification of the workforce and research and development centres. Brussels’ status as the capital of Europe, which attracts numerous international organizations and multinational companies to the country, could also serve as an inspiration for Portugal.

Why not Lisbon claims the status of capital of the oceans, or of Portuguese speaking, for example?

10- Do you consider going back to Portugal? Why?

Even though I left Portugal, Portugal never left me. Despite having left 28 years ago, I remain very connected to my country, both personally and professionally. The definitive return to my homeland, however, will only occur at the end of my career. Portugal is where my roots and family are, and it’s the only place where I really feel at home.

Read the original article here.