Saturday, July 21, 2007

Portuguese presidential soap opera

For those of you interested in the complexities of EU-member state relations, and the polarized feelings that membership inevitably causes, this piece on Portugal’s ambivalent relationship with the EU is instructive. And kind of funny, if you’re willing to look at EU studies a soap-operatic type way--which is the best way to look at it. There’s a little bit of everything here. One gets a sense of the wide spectrum of interests and players (or characters in the soap opera) involved. Through their compelling personal struggles and political hardships, we learn why the EU is such a mysterious and exciting bureaucratic nightmare/opportunity.

For a typical polemic to get the soap opera going, let's hear from an economic commentator for the country's leading financial newspaper:
"We spent all this money building stadiums when we should have used the money to improve worker skills and to make us more competitive and more prepared for change,"
Development 101. Planners take note. This shit is still happening.

From the botched planning and its political implications, it’s not a great leap to the top of the top:
"Having Barroso as president of the Commission is not making people here love the EU or care about it," said Miguel Moutinho, 26, an animal rights activist who possesses extensive knowledge of EU affairs and admits to reading EU animal hygiene directives for fun. "People felt Barroso betrayed the country when he went to Brussels, and that feeling has not gone away."
One has to wonder if this young man (when not reading up on animal hygiene) can be trusted. After all, we never hear about President Barroso’s dark past in the EU news context! WTF? If he screwed over Portugal when he left, is he the right man for the EU?! Who is this Barroso, anyway, and what of his Iberian cabal, the cosa he runs with Solana, and the other one, Almunia-- You expect us to believe that's a coincidence?

But wait, there’s more. How about the unavoidable rivalry with their Iberian neighbor:
Economists say Portugal's ambivalence toward the EU also can be explained by the fact that it has invested its ample EU funds - about €25 billion, or $34.6 billion, last year alone - less productively than neighboring Spain.

While Spain's investments in modern infrastructure helped offset uncomfortable structural changes, like liberalizing the labor market and privatizing state-owned industries, Portugal used its EU funds to expand its economy, without addressing embedded problems such as its inadequate education system. Political pressure from small-town politicians also diverted funds to rural areas at the expense of cities.
How embarrassing for poor Portugal to get left in the dust by mediocre Spain! What can they possibly do to catch up (short of trying to unify with their richer, larger neighbors in an Iberian Federation)?

Finally, let’s not forget about the last 2 complementary components of the glorified soap opera that is the EU. The first is is self doubt:
We Portuguese seem to be incapable of governing ourselves and the EU gives us much-needed stability," he said, adding that "the EU forces us to look beyond Portugal and to have the discipline we need if we are going to prosper in the future.
Another timeless trope: the EU as answer to southern Mediterreanean countries' inability to govern. The same has been said about Italy and Greece--notably, Spain has done better in this regard--and one could see the Eastern European Big Bangers in a similar light (it turns out that many countries seem or see themselves as incapable of governing effectively). 

Luckily, to end the Portuguese story on a less-skeptical note—this self-doubt is tempered with something of a youthful optimism:
Whatever the ambivalence about the EU, the younger generation is adamant that the future of a small country like Portugal rests firmly and abidingly in Europe. Moutinho said many of his friends were ignorant about the EU, which they viewed as distant and inaccessible. But he insisted that the economic and political benefits of being part of a 27-member bloc were Portugal's greatest asset in a globalized world and few Portuguese doubted this.
In conclusion: The path will not be easy… but EUrope is the way forward! (Not that they really have another choice, like Norway.) Now we’re all ready to see how this Presidency will affect Portugal. And the EU. And all these real people caught in the middle.

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