Happy to have found a spot for our car and a hostel for ourselves in central Lisbon, we hasten through the streets in between 17th century houses to meet Rodrigo, our Portuguese contact. After a ten hour drive from southern France crossing the whole of Spain from east to west we are hungry and exhausted, but tonight is the last chance to meet Rodrigo and his friends before they leave Lisbon for their Easter break. Once we have reached the place and start with our first question, we understand that fasting for a few hours more will be well worth it.
Rodrigo is a political science student, who runs approximately five (international) student organisations and still finds the time to meet strangers for a discussion. Tonight he brought three friends with him: Miguel has started working as an academic assistant, Marie will finish highschool this year and Pedro is in Rodrigo’s political science programme. Their educational background confronts us once again with the trade-off between a well-informed opinion and one which is representative for the general public.
A country unlike the other PIIGS
As an introduction about Portugal, Rodrigo describes a country that is severely hit by the economic crisis, where prices for public transportation have more than doubled, where people stop going to the cinema, where it is hard to find a job for the younger generation. Nevertheless he states that we have to understand that “… there is an important difference between the other PIIGS countries and us. Portuguese are passive people. We might blame our government for their mistakes, but in the end we are reluctant to go to the streets and voice our opinion against the establishment.” Weren’t there about 200,000 demonstators on the streets last year? “Yes, but these demonstrations where triggered by unions and some leftist groups, who would be happy to use any chance to mobilise the people. And yes again, a major part of these 200,000 were people like you and me, who were frustrated with the Portuguese government. But ever since that one instance, people have returned to their attitude of not doing much.”
Pedro agrees. And adds that it lies within the culture of the Portuguese people to accept whatever fate they are currently experiencing. “If you look at our past, major changes were always only promoted by a minority. The general public held still when the Moors where ruling here for more than 400 years, when the Spanish crown succumbed our independence and when Salazar installed a system of supervision and surpression. Even nowadays people wait for salvation by some political leader.”
Portugal is far in the west – I am afraid to be marginalized
Could the European Union be that savior for Portugal? ”People here turn towards their national government, when turning to politics at all”, says Rodrigo. “It is true that the Troika has put our government under pressure to reduce the deficit. But how does our government do it? They sell the national airline to their friends from school and reduce minimum wages! Clientilism is still a huge problem here. Nevertheless, especially our generation trusts that the French and German authorities will take reasonable decisions.”
Then how about a Federal European Union, how about the United States of Europe? Marie hesitates, unwilling to accept such an idea from the heart: “You know, Portugal is far in the west, and I am afraid to be marginalised, when it comes to European decisions. It is already true that economic and political power is drawn to the centre. Imagine that would be the case in a federal state. I wouldn’t like that. Let us cope with our own mismanagement. And lazyness.”
Young people leave – and only come back once they are rich
In the hussle that follows the last comment, Marie presents her view on the lazyness issue: “In Luxembourg we form about a fifth of the population; After Lisbon, Paris is the second biggest Portuguese city, populationwise. Our people are spread all over the world and do a good job wherever they live. But when we stay in Portugal, we are somehow overcome by the feeling that nothing is working, that we are stagnating. That’s why people leave to earn money and only come back once they are rich.”
When asked whether they and their friends would leave the country once they are gratuated, they uniformly agree. Even if they love their 17th century houses and the view down the streets at the sea as much as we do.