The Portuguese government has set the stage for a ban on Huawei equipment in the country’s 5G network in what would be a policy U-turn that delivers a severe blow to the Chinese company’s ambitions in Europe.
A document from the Portuguese government’s cyber security council laid out the rationale for an eventual ban on some 5G equipment, including Huawei’s, by outlining a plan to restrict the use of kit deemed “high risk”, said telecoms industry officials.
Governments around the world have used the term “high risk vendor” to refer to Huawei when introducing curbs on the use of the company’s equipment.
The question of whether or not to allow telecoms groups to use Huawei equipment in 5G infrastructure has become a major issue across Europe after Washington launched an offensive to get allied nations to ban the Chinese telecoms group on national security grounds.
The UK, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have banned Huawei from their 5G network build. This year, Germany said it was reviewing the use of Chinese components in its 5G network and investigating whether a change in the law would be required.
But Portugal was one of a handful of countries in Europe that pushed back against the US government’s lobbying. Portuguese prime minister António Costa, whose country has been one of the biggest per capita recipients of Chinese investment, told the Financial Times in 2019 that Chinese companies had “shown complete respect for our legal framework and the rules of the market”.
The security move points to a significant shift in Lisbon’s relatively benign relationship with Beijing. It flourished as economic links between the countries grew in the past decade, but has become more difficult as the US presses European allies to cool their ties with China.
The document from the cyber security council, known officially as a “deliberation”, was published on the government’s website on Thursday and signed by a top national security official, António Gameiro Marques.
It outlines plans to exclude or apply restrictions on the use of equipment deemed high risk in its 5G network, but does not have any immediate effect because it would need to be approved by the cabinet, which oversees the cyber security council.
The Portuguese government said its assessment may result in the exclusion, restriction or termination of use of certain equipment and services but noted that the result of its assessment was still “classified”.
The three main mobile telecoms groups in Portugal are Altice Portugal, Nos and Vodafone. Altice Portugal, the largest operator, signed an agreement with Huawei in 2018 to use the Chinese vendor as part of its 5G rollout.
Huawei said in a statement that it was aware that the Portuguese government had published a statement concerning the security risk of telecoms equipment and was in the process of gathering more information with related authorities.
“Huawei has no prior knowledge of, and hasn’t been consulted about, this matter,” it said. “Over the past two decades, Huawei has worked with Portuguese carriers to build out wireless networks and provide quality services that connect millions of people. We will continue to comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and serve Portuguese customers and partners who rely on our products and services.”
According to Portugal’s directive, the cyber security council undertook a detailed review of equipment used in the country’s communication networks.
It determined that some 5G equipment had been deemed high risk if, among other things, the company that produced it was linked to a government or legal system that did not have legislation or diplomatic agreements with Portugal or the EU to protect data, cyber security or intellectual property or was recognised as responsible for hostile acts of espionage or sabotage against Portugal or its allies.
Altice Portugal and Vodafone did not respond to a request for comment.