While Europe and the IMF rush to Ireland’s aid, Portugal is sinking deeper into crisis. Faced with the country’s economic difficulties, the government has announced an unprecedented austerity plan: VAT is to go up, civil servants’ salaries are to be frozen or even cut, and benefits are to be reduced too. These austerity measures are causing anxiety among the population, already confronted with hard times.
When it hits, the financial crisis impacts each country differently, affects each economy in a particular way. Some have been struck especially hard. These countries have been branded the PIGS, designating Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Europe’s black sheep.
But what is the reality in these countries?
The problems of Portugal, one of the poorest countries in Europe, are not new. Competitiveness is too low, a consequence of a poorly qualified workforce, exponentially high public deficits, and most of all, endemic corruption which strangles people’s hopes and creativity. These are all weak points that the crisis has accentuated.
Prime Minister José Socrates, a Socialist, keeps insisting that Portugal “doesn’t need any help”, but the spectre of European and IMF intervention draws nearer every day.
But is it really a spectre? For most of the people I meet, this possibility is actually not seen as a threat. “The IMF is already here”, through the harsh austerity measures the government has put forward, some tell me. “At least they are sorting out this corrupt system”, say others.
This gap between the official line and the mood of the population is one of the first things that surprise me.
But even more surprising is the silence of the Portuguese in the midst of these problems. Although participation was high in the general strike spearheaded by the country’s two main unions on November 24th, their protest remained peaceful.
And yet the anxiety is there, along with the bitterness.
For others, the way out is to leave. Last year, like this year, almost 100,000 Portuguese left the country. Among them were many university graduates, who cannot find prospects at home.