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As we enter the final week of the European election campaign, Europa United contributor Bárbara Matias brings us the update on Portugal and how it is running with the European election circus.

In a year – some would even say decade – of political turmoil in the European Union, I’m offering a breather by taking a deeper look at a Member State whose internal developments do not make as many headlines – Portugal. Where Italy has Salvini fighting for an anti-EU alliance, France has Le Pen looking to make a comeback, Hungary has Órban clinging to power and Spain just witnessed the sudden surge of their first major far-right party, Portugal is one of the few EU Member States without a significant anti-immigration or anti-EU sentiment. We are going to analyze Portugal’s political landscape tied to the upcoming European elections and the new challenge rummaging the EU. How is Portugal countering tendencies? Why does it matter and what should we expect from it in the age of fake news?

Lisbon, capital of Portugal

Arguably, never has a European election been such a strong topic of contention. It has led to the race for the European elections being riddled with hostile rhetoric and anti-system proposals. Since the last European Parliament (EP) elections in 2014, the EU28 has faced an unprecedented number of forcibly displaced people seeking asylum in the continent, has tackled the sensitive and also unprecedented matter of one Member State leaving the Union, and has seen the rise of several extremist and/or Eurosceptic leaders who question the credibility of the European project. In keeping with this momentum, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has recently founded a European alliance which vows to “overhaul the EU from within” by uniting the fragmented extremist parties. Joining Italy’s League, France’s National Rally and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) in one single bloc, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) alliance is sure to effectively influence EU affairs given the larger scope of seating influence they are expected to secure in the plenary. All of the aforementioned national parties were founded or rebranded since 2013 and became prominent in the period since the last elections in May 2014, in which for instance Brexit, border control and asylum became hot topics. Among some ideas put forth by ENF political members are the withdrawal from the Eurozone and, should reforms not be accomplished, from the European Union itself .

Recent poll predictions courtesy of Europe Elects

The range of the Portuguese political scene

Up for grabs are 751 seats in the EP plenary. It is expected that a large minority of those seats be overtaken by Eurosceptic parties come the 26-29 May 2019 elections. The appeal of populist parties has indeed grown since the last election. However, populist parties have yet to garner enough votes to be represented in the national assemblies of Ireland, Luxemburg, Malta, Romania, the UK and Portugal. The research topic of this article is the latter. Looking particularly at Portugal, only one of two abovementioned countries within continental Western Europe, the country has 21 seats in the EP plenary and it is expected that they will be consensual in being pro-EU integration. This small southern European country is going on 33 years of EU membership, having acceded in 1986 after successfully toppling the long-standing authoritarian political regime which reigned since 1933. Once a democracy, European integration became a priority of the Portuguese government in order to establish closer ties with neighbors, allies, partners and fellow European countries.

More importantly, Portugal’s accession to the EU also meant Portugal’s access to the many EU funds. The European structural and investment funds (i.e. agriculture, maritime and fisheries, transports, social, cohesion ) were crucial in boosting Portugal’s infrastructures, economic potential and foreign investment appeal. Moreover, in being a relatively geographically displaced country in the continent, Portugal also benefited (and continues to benefit) immensely from the European integration project. Portuguese citizens may still live on the Western edge of the European continent but are now much more central and connected in their access and opportunities, thanks to EU programs such as Erasmus for education exchange, Schengen for free movement, the Eurozone commonality, and varied EU summits hosted in alternating EU capitals. Portugal has fully engaged in the European project and taken on its duties as Member State through mobilizing initiatives. Portuguese political action toward the EU pertains, chiefly, work for the enhancement of the Economic and Monetary Union, respect to the European Pillar of Social Rights, abiding by the new resolutions on migration and asylum-seekers, and strengthening the EU’s external action with a particular focus on the country’s good relations with Africa and South America. Currently the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is preparing the upcoming rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which Portugal will preside in 2021.

Portugal has a modern liberal democracy has a population who has consistently voted pro-EU centrist parties into power: the Socialist Party (Partido Social, PS) or the Social Democrat Party (Partido Social Democrata, PSD). Similarly, 16 of the 21 EP seats belong to these two main parties. The others belong to either left or right- wing parties, yet neither of them with populist ideologies. As things stand, Portugal has seven main political parties as represented in the National Assembly: ranging from left-wing (Left Bloc/Bloco de Esquerda, BE, and the Portuguese Communist Party/Partido Comunista Português, PCP) to right-wing (People’s Party/Centro Democrático e Social-Partido Popular, CDS-PP), as well as the eco-socialist party (Greens), the Nature party (PAN) and, finally, the two centrist parties (PS and PSD) which have alternatively held power since the Carnation Revolution in 1974. The Portuguese political scene therefore has no far-left or far-right parties which carry enough influence or voters to impact national or municipal legislative. Moreover, the Portuguese political scene showcases a consensual stance on the EU, advocating for European integration, the Eurozone and recognizing the benefits EU membership has brought to the country.

In April 2019 a new party, Chega! (translation: Enough!), emerged. One which was more so propelled by regional tendencies rather than the actual needs and challenges of Portuguese society. This newborn party put forth anti-immigration and Eurosceptic narratives, a first in the Portuguese political landscape. In advocating for stronger borders, less refugee influxes and chastising the Eurozone and the EU, it seemingly brought the far-right movement to Portugal. However, it is important to contextualize Chega!’s sudden appearance vis-à-vis the Portuguese socioeconomic reality. Portugal has displayed a favorable discourse toward migration and influxes, particularly given the economic migrants who commonly arriving in Portugal from former Portuguese colonies and share the same native language as well as integrate relatively easily into society and the labor market. Currently, the discourse adopted by politicians towards migration and asylum is one a possible solution for the demographic deficit and renewal of generations.

With the lowest birth rate in the EU, an aging population and high emigration rates among the youth, integrating migrants and refugees is hailed as constructive and, even, necessary as an economic strategy to revitalize fertility rates and the labor market. When it comes to the mass refugee fluxes into the EU, Portugal has not been affected by the issues destabilizing other EU member states, such as border control issues, surges of illegal migration, human smuggling networks and terrorist attacks (the latter is obviously not necessarily linked to the formers but certainly undermines domestic stability and prompts social uproar nonetheless). For instance, Germany received almost 200,000 asylum applications in 2017 – the most out of the EU28 and followed by 126,000 in Italy and 90,000 in France – Portugal received less than 1,500 in the same period.

In Portuguese politics and society, a positive narrative towards refugee communities and immigration trends is therefore widespread, owing to the real benefits incoming communities can bring to the country and to the lack of adverse circumstances felt so far. For this reason, the sudden emergence of the populist party Chega! pertains more to an attempt to profit from the current populist momentum rather than responding to new or dire demands of the Portuguese population. It is a party that preaches stricter laws and harsher tones to a society whose factual and statistical reality does not warrant such a deviation from human rights, migration tolerance or open borders to asylum-seekers. In the era of fake news and globalization, parties such as this one end up collecting votes and attention by putting out the flashiest headlines. The end up convincing citizens that legislative changes are needed to correct an inexistent problem by referring to other, parallel, realities in the EU or the world. At the end of the day, Portugal is not Germany – not in population, GDP, territory size or level of attractiveness and/or domestic issues when it comes to managing migrants and refugees. The political gap Chega! is attempting to fill actually does not exist in Portugal, it is a fake gap created by exacerbating other countries’ problems and attempting to restate them into Portugal, a country which displays an entirely different sociopolitical reality.

The Portuguese domestic state of play vis-à-vis the EU

In line with the European elections, the Portuguese parties align themselves with centrist and pro-European alliances. The nine expected seats of PS are part of S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) European group, the seven seats of PSD and CDS stand for the EPP (European People’s Party) group and the remaining four seats are expected to elect MEPs for the Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left. The outlier coalition up for votes in the European elections in Portugal on May 26th 2019 is indeed the one led by Chega!, a right-wing populist coalition named Basta! (translation: Enough!). It is formed by the latter and parties of Monarchic and Christian ideologies (Partido Popular Monárquico, Partido Cidadania e Democracia Cristã and Democracia 21) and is expected to not garner enough votes to quality for a single seat in the EP plenary. Portugal’s voting tendencies and standing within the European Union can be explained by delving into the country’s relationship with the EU and, in that respect, with emerging global challenges. Alone, the Portuguese state has a shrunken presence in international fora and a quieter voice in regional and global politics. Alone, Portuguese citizens lose benefits that EU citizenship automatically grants. Alone, no nation is able to tackle domestic issues for, in the current day and age, all issues are intrinsically tied to that of other nations – be it socially, economically, financially or culturally. Portuguese voters and leaders know this and act accordingly. What to expect for here on out? As the populist movement gains speed – not just in Europe, but with recent significant wins in the United States and Brazil – it is to be expected that the rhetoric will reach Portugal and try to find a seat at the table. Fear spreads so seamlessly, especially in the time of fake news and social media. It is my sincere hope that Portugal continues committed to the European project which it has benefited so much from and that citizens are not enticed by baseless promises with no factual relevance to the Portuguese domestic reality.

So there you have it – I sought not sell the idea of a perfect Member State (for that doesn’t exist), but rather to remind the readers of what the EU is actually about. The EU is not about the flashy headlines on refugees or bitter political leaders, it is about integrating countries within a context of peace, prosperity and profitable partnership in a continent that had been, time and time again, ravaged by war and it is about boosting national realities with community funds or initiatives. In Portugal it is about bringing a small and geographically removed country to the forefront of international stages and effectively increasing standards of living. Citizens must take notice and vote accordingly.

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Bárbara Matias
Bárbara Matias is a Human Rights graduate student from Columbia University. She is now living and working in Kosovo, has previously interned at NATO and the EU, and speaks six languages. Her research interests include migration and forced displacement, European affairs and EU enlargement, and transatlantic relations.

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