Portuguese people are fond of flags. Walk around in a random Portuguese city or neighbourhood and you will see plenty of flags hanging out of windows or waving proudly over public buildings. Since 1986, a second flag appeared next to the Portuguese one: the twelve-starred flag of the European Union. When displayed on a sign instead of decorating a flagpole, it is likely to indicate a project has been co-funded by the EU. Huge funds have been pumped into Portugal since it joined the EU. However, the results seem less convincing than the achievements of Spain and Ireland, who joined almost at the same time and had similar economies before entering the EU.
Jo?o (22) tells me that the Portuguese are generally quite happy to be part of the European Union. Portugal`s membership has led to major improvements in infrastructure. Many cities centres have been renewed, roads have been widened, tunnels dug and railway lines revived. Signs next to building sites mark the exact financial contribution by the EU, oftentimes specified to the exact number of cents. Jo?o doesn`t know of many examples of the EU funding education or basically anything but infrastructure.
`Over the last decades, the Portuguese government has not excelled in making the right choices`
Compared to Ireland and Spain
Frederico (19) and Catarina (20) can think of one major reason why the EU has not brought Portugal the same improvements as it did to Ireland or Spain. `Our government is stupid, we have a lot of corruption and the people are selfish and lazy`, says Catarina, `lazy because they don`t want to work, selfish because people think of themselves or their families rather than thinking about the country.`
The perceived stupidity of the authorities is an idea that has kept recurring throughout my stay in Portugal. Ivo (24, photo) explains that many of the choices made by the various Portuguese governments have not turned out to be lucky ones. Most of the EU grants were spent either on infrastructure or on outdated industries. Fellow EU newcomers used their resources in a different way: Ireland invested in attracting foreign enterprises and improving education. Spain decided to exploit its beaches and cultural heritage for the sake of boosting tourism.
The Portuguese tendency to conventionalism dates back a long time. After reaching what is still today perceived as dominance over the world`s seas in the 1400s and 1500s, Portugal collected huge reserves of precious materials from its colonies. It kept collecting resources until 1755, when a big earthquake destroyed the very centre of the Portuguese power: Lisbon. The whole city was destroyed and the bodies of the dead were sent off to the ocean on boats to be burnt ? they were simply too many to be buried.
During the earthquake, the entire country`s reserves also disappeared. If not covered in debris, whatever was left got plundered by people who came from all over the country to take their share of whatever was left.
Nothing has been the same since. Portugal since then focused on agriculture, was late to join the industrial revolution. The country was technically bankrupt in the 1940s, even though it had not been involved in the Second World War. It was Financial Minister Salazar who put the country back on track, but at a heavy price. He transformed into a dictator, kept Portugal isolated from the outside world for three decades. According to Salazar`s motto: for God, for the Country and for the Family or in the international spheres Proudly alone. During his rule, political opponents were imprisoned and colonial wars broke out in the ultramar overseas territories. The colonial wars, the oil crisis and wide spread poverty led to quick changes after Salazar`s death in 1974. The country converted into a democracy, but found itself once again on the verge of bankruptcy. Colonies declared independence and Portugal saw its access to resources minimised. The Portuguese mainland was left with hardly anything but agriculture and textile manufacturing. Only in recent years, Portugal has been able to develop other profitable services and activities.
With no more unknown territories to be colonized and no leading industries, Portugal had a slow start in its struggle to keep up with Europe. It is waiting for another wave to surf, hoping to regain the leading position it once had. Current projects in renewable energy look promising: Portugal is home to the world`s largest solar power plant, and is also hosting the world`s first commercial wave power farm.
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