EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Portuguese-based legal system a cornerstone for ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and should be preserved – EU envoy

By Nelson Moura and José Carlos Matias

The local Portuguese-based legal system is a “cornerstone” for rule of law in Macau and the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle and should be preserved, the Head of the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau, Thomas Gnocchi, indicated in an interview with Macau News Agency (MNA).

Gnocchi replaced Carmen Cano as Head of the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau in September of this year, and in his first interview to a local news outlet underlined the importance that preserving the local legal framework has for rule of law in the city.

“The upholding of the rule of law, through an independent judiciary capable of delivering fair trials, is the cornerstone for Macau’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle,” Gnocchi told MNA.

Asked how important is to preserve Macau’s Portuguese-based legal system, the diplomat said “due to Macau’s unique historical heritage, its legal system is based on Portuguese legal traditions. Therefore, preserving Macau’s Portuguese-based legal system is necessary for preserving Macau’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. The SAR cannot continue to succeed without its rule of law.”

The Portuguese-inspired local legal system, its application and evolution was addressed by the President of the Court of Final Appeal (TUI) at the opening of the 2020/2021 judicial year, where Sam Hou Fai stated that there is a need to reflect not only on the successful achievements of the implementation of the One Country Two Systems policy but also on the challenges in the application of Macau’s legal system, which is inspired by Portugal’s for historical reasons. Mr Sam refered to different moral values, ethics, customs, culture size and geographic location of both places – the SAR and Portugal.

The judge considered for example, that it was challenging to apply the regime of impediments in force within the scope of Public Law established to ensure impartiality and justice, in addition to preventing conflicts of interest due to the small size of the local society and its close ​​interpersonal relationships.

Macau’s rights and freedoms “generally respected”

In his first interview to newspaper South China Morning Post Gnocchi expressed concerns over the effects of the national security law implemented in Hong Kong on June 30, including concerns of self-censorship and decreasing independence of the judiciary.

When addressing the current situation in Macau, the EU representative noted that there has been no change to Macau’s national security legislation enforced in 2009 “for the time being” and underlined previous assertions by the Europan bloc that the rights and fundamental freedoms under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ continue to be “generally respected and the rule of law continues to be upheld”.

“Overall, the ‘one country, two systems’ principle continues to be implemented in Macau, and that is to the benefit of the Macau SAR, China as a whole, and the international community,” Gnocchi added.

However, the EU representative still indicated that even though the local Basic Law does not contemplate the introduction of universal suffrage, the EU will continue to encourage Macau’s authorities to foster greater public involvement in elections for the position of Chief Executive and for the Legislative Assembly. 

The EU representative also highlighted the success of the ‘EU–Macau Cooperation Programme in the Legal Field’ held between 2016 and 2019 and which aimed to strengthen the SAR’s legal system and improve training for the local legal practitioners, through organizing workshops and seminars, publications, media promotion and other activities.

“We are in contact with the Macau authorities with a view to continuing this useful cooperation which supports the modernisation of the Macau legal system. The Macau SAR government has recently taken stock of the latest phase of the cooperation programme and its 43 activities carried out between November 2015 and November 2019, including extensive training,” Gnocchi.