Portugal before the European Elections

Batista

My name is Vasco Batista, I am 23 years old, I am Portuguese and this is the second time I took part in the elections for the European Parliament.

At the time I wrote this article, I had already voted in the European elections. As I currently live in another EU Member State, I could vote in advance at the Portuguese embassy – mobility is also what European Union and citizenship is about. I can now declare myself a voter in these European elections! It was the second time I voted in the European elections. In 2009, the elections for the European Parliament were really remarkable for me as it was the first time I could exercise my right to vote after having turned 18 – and curiously enough I also voted in advance as during my bachelor’s programme I lived far from my hometown . Voting for the European Parliament elections in 2014 is equally important – if not even more important — than five years ago when the Lisbon Treaty and the lack of enthusiasm it encountered stood in the centre of the debate and the growing Euroscepticism already threatened the European Union.

The debate on the Lisbon Treaty was one of the most difficult issues in 2009. Nowadays we realise that the contribution of the Lisbon Treaty to deal with the euro crisis is practically non-existent, as in the debates of the Lisbon Treaty not enough attention was given to economic and monetary issues, to which Europe reacted mainly through intergovernmental agreements. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty has contributed to this; decisions on economic and monetary issues are made mainly by governments among which Germany has proven to be the most powerful. What it is it Europe needs these days? Europe needs a deeper political union among the Member States, but politicians cannot make such a proposal when citizens are more suspicious about Europe than ever. The euro crisis is considered the main culprit for the growth of anti-European feelings among citizens, but the decreasing turnout for the European elections should have been recognised as an alarming sign for the citizens’ lack of interest in Europe.

What do we already know?

In the run-up for the elections to the European Parliament, the polls presented by PollWatch show the victory of the European Popular Party with 212 seats. Portugal is about to elect 21 MEPs – the country will lose one seat due the accession of Croatia as a Member State – and more than a half of the current MEPs are not running again for elections.
In fact, these elections have two main features: the dispute between the social democrats and the EPP and the tensions brought about by anti-European and populist parties. What is frightening in these elections is the ascension of nationalism in some of the countries which are most decisive for the future of Europe, such as France and the United Kingdom. According to the most recent projection by PollWatch Eurosceptic parties may double their number of members in the European Parliament. The Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) and the Non-Inscrits (NI) may go from 64 to 135 members, especially the NI, where many far-right parties are included. The EPP may lose 57 members, still remaining the largest group in the EP, followed by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with a gain of 5 members, from 196 to 201. The reduction of difference between the two major political families might indicate the need for a more consensual president of the European Commission. The votes of the Eurosceptic political parties that are running for elections can reach up to 30%.

Let me present some reflections on the European elections and democracy coming from André Freire, a Portuguese political scientist, about Portuguese citizens’ feelings regarding these elections. In an opinion piece for the Portuguese newspaper Público, André Freire wrote that Europeans have clear and structured ideas about European integration and that these ideas are more polarised than the left-right division mirrors. Therefore, the potential political conflict about European issues is high. It is also clear that the bailout programmes (applied in Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Ireland) had a negative influence on people’s minds about Europe and on the shrinking support of the support of the European project.

As said before, polls indicate that Europe’s two major parties are close and way ahead of all others. In Portugal the scenario is similar, although there are no populist parties (at least with chances to have a single MEP elected). Maybe this year the elections will indeed be different, as for the first time MEPs will determine the election of the president of the European Commission.

The current times bear high expectation for Portuguese citizens. Since this week, Portugal is no longer subject to the strict supervision of its international creditors (the so-called troika: European Commission, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank) after exiting its three-year bail-out programme over the weekend of 17 May. Although this by itself does not mean that the country is free from the challenges it faced in the recent years. In fact, as far as the unemployment is concerned Portugal is facing high levels of unemployment, with 15% of the economically active population out of work, including 38% of those under the age of 25. These figures reflect high the unemployment levels across the eurozone as the average unemployment in the eurozone is 12%. At the same time, the Portuguese media reported just a few days ago that Portugal will have 103 000 more unemployed people in 2014 than it had in 2010. The European Commission revealed the structural unemployment for this year: 13.3%. This means that 720 000 out of 815 000 (88%) Portuguese will not find a job, despite cyclical variations. The governor of the Bank of Portugal, Carlos Costa, confirmed that “a part of employment which was lost in the sector of non-tradable sector will not be recovered with the economic recovery.” At the same time, Portugal ranks third among the OECD countries concerning youth unemployment.
As said before the first time I ever voted in my life was exactly four years ago in the Elections to the European Parliament. The for the current elections predicted high level of abstentions makes me feel that Europeans are not concerned with saving Europe – but can we only blame the citizens? Lack of interest, a perceived lack of effect on real life and protest against the government are among the reasons most mentioned for their abstention. Nevertheless, two factors are consensual:  high abstention makes surveys less credible and ruling parties tend to be the most penalised. Negative records were reached in 1994 and 2009 with abstention hitting 64.5% and 63.2%. In elections to establish a government – national elections – electors tend to be more strategic. Concerning European elections there is a new factor: European subjects perceived themselves as ‘domestic’ and austerity measures as imposed by external players.

At the same time, recent studies show that the Portuguese have the least trust in their political parties of all Europeans. At the European level, and with just a few days to go until the elections to the European Parliament, two separate polls suggested that around two-thirds of Europeans feel that their voices are not heard in Brussels, even though trust in the European Union is rebounding from record lows.

What do the Portuguese candidates stand for?

In Portugal a total of 16 lists are running for the elections to the European Parliament on May 25th — three more than in 2009. The conservative PSD and CDS-PP (currently governing Portugal in a coalition government) are running in a coalition under the name Aliança Portugal (Alliance Portugal) which is headed by current MEP Paulo Rangel; the first candidate from CDS-PP comes in 4th place. His name is Nuno Melo, also currently an MEP.
Another coalition is formed by the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português), the Ecologist Party ‘The Greens’ (Verdes) and the Democratic Intervention in electoral acts:  Unitarian Democratic Centre.

Two new parties will contest: MAS (Movement Socialist Alternative – a far-left party) , founded in July 2013 , and Livre (Free), the newest political party, registered less than a month ago in the Portuguese Constitutional Court, whose main political figure is Rui Tavares, currently an MEP in the Green/EFA group.
The PAN (Party for Animals and Nature), PDA (Democratic Party of the Atlantic), PTP (Portuguese Labour Party) and PPV (Portugal pro-life), which did not run in 2009 have this time presented candidates for the European elections.

The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda), Socialist Party (Partido Socialista), POUS, PCTP – MRPP, MPT ( Earth Movement Party), NRP (National Renewal Party – a far-right party) , PPM (People’s Monarchist Party) and NDP ( New Democracy) complete the list of competing political formations .

In the elections held five years ago the PSD, which now competes with the related CDS – PP with currently eight elected MEPs, while the PS then managed to win seven seats in the European Parliament.

The Left Block was the third strongest political force with three elected MEPs and CDS – PP elected had two MEPs elected (as CDU).

The most recent polls presented yesterday indicate that Marinho Pinto (Earth Movement Party)  has good chances to be elected as MEP, contrary to what was expected.
The abstention in the elections held on June 7, 2009 was 63.22 %. This time the results should confirm the most recent polls:

Portugal

The socialist leading candidate for the European elections, Francisco Assis (Partido Socialista – S&D), says that Europe is not prepared to become a federation, but advocates that concrete steps are being taken to address a deeper political integration. Moreover, Assis disagrees with an anti-German discourse, arguing that each country must stand for its interests. The socialist candidate also criticised the intergovernmental model, whose influence grew in Europe and considers that the European Commission president did not have the strength to fight it. Furthermore, Assis added that the widening gap between richer and poorer countries can undermine the European project and social tensions are also a problem as they create room for xenophobe proposals.

Paulo Rangel – currently an MEP who is running again for elections heading the PSD (EPP) list – claims that Portugal will now enter in a new phase of growth and employment as the country opted for the clean exit. For him, austerity is over and the period of real sacrifices has already passed. Rangel did not express his ideas about the post-troika period but revealed that if necessary Europe should protect the country in the markets. For him, the European Central Bank’s mandate has already been widened with the OMT and quantitative easing programmes and he would like to see the ECB moving in the direction of a classic Central Bank.

MEP Marisa Matias – top candidate of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda – BE/GUE-NGL) who in 2011 was distinguished as MEP of the year in health policy by The Parliament Magazine, recognising her work with particular emphasis on chronic diseases such as diabetes, mental health and Alzheimer’s considered “instrumental in draft proposals to control the sale of counterfeit medicines, which seem to be growing across Europe”  – admitted that the political right wing won the common sense battle in 2011, installing the idea that Portugal was living above its possibilities, which, according to her, is a lie. As for BE’s message getting through, Matias says that the message is quite simple: to fight austerity. But just because it is simple it doesn’t mean that it should not be evaluated constantly. Marisa Matias believes that sooner or later there is going to be a debt restructuring and that sooner would be better.

Paulo Rangel, by contrast, says that if the Fiscal Compact has to be denounced, it would have a very negative impact on the euro area economies, especially those which are exiting a difficult process – like Portugal. Rangel believes that the debt restructuring, connected as it is with a pardon, would be catastrophic for Portugal. Rangel also believes that Jean-Claude Juncker as the new European Commissioner President would be relevant, as Juncker is a seasoned politician with executive experience, as well as a totally European agenda.

João Ferreira – MEP and CDU (Unitarian Democratic Centre – Communist Party/Coligação Democrática Unitária/GUE-NGL) defends the dissolution of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and sees it as inseparable from the coalition views on European integration, as economic subjection between countries with different levels of development has not helped the most fragile economies. However, João Ferreira defends that such dissolution should be a long and phased process and that a solution for the debt problem can only be a renegotiation of deadlines, amounts and interest rates and in concert with countries in similar situation – the countries from the south, mostly.

Rui Tavares – currently an MEP within the Green/EFA group who created the new political party “Livre” – believes the budgetary treaty is totally wrong because it prevents governments from using budgetary tools in economic crises. When questioned about a possible exit from the eurozone, the MEP claims that exiting the eurozone means getting out of the EU altogether.

MEP João Ferreira advocates that Portugal should leave the eurozone, arguing that the single currency slowed down the economic growth. Ferreira also says the eurozone exit has to be prepared with a renegotiation of the public debt and the state must regain control over strategic economic sectors. He underlines that Portugal should dismiss the Fiscal Compact by arguing that it is not a European treaty. Moreover, Ferreira’s political party advocates a revision of the ECB statutes in order to guarantee political control of the ECB by the states. “The ECB should act for growth and development and not in the interest of capital”, he says.

The Fiscal Compact is the main frontier between right and left regarding the European Union, with the left refusing it and the right wing approving it. The Fiscal Compact aims at imposing a golden rule on keeping Member States’ budgets balanced and never over 0,5 per cent of the respective state’s GDP. The main goals of this treaty are to harden the coercive legislation of the Maastricht Treaty

Is the euro destroying Europe? Discussing the European Monetary Union and the ECB’s competence seems to be a taboo in Brussels and in Portugal. The euro is severing the ties that united the European economies and societies and Europe should discuss measures to reduce public debt and put an end to the eurozone fragmentation. Instead governments are living in an imaginary sovereignty. Portugal has just announced a “clean” exit and the costs of the financial cushion that have allowed this choice is the price of Europe’s lack of solidarity.

Recently in a debate about the European elections, the four major Portuguese parties, represented by the lists’ heads, talked about national and European matters. Francisco Assis and Paulo Rangel diverged on economic aspects. Assis advocated that Eurobonds are a priority while Rangel argued that it is necessary to build confidence. Marisa Matias argued that a debt mutualisation is insufficient, because the debt is unsustainable, an argument that no candidate disputed. João Ferreira from the communist coalition said that the euro fosters inequalities and therefore Portugal should leave the eurozone. Rangel considered the TTIP a crucial instrument for Europe and Portugal. Rangel also argued that Portugal must be on the front line of negotiations because some sectors may suffer a negative impact through the agreement.

(Un)employment in Portugal – dropping since 2002

Portugal’s unemployment rate was 15.2 % in March, the lowest since the exact same month of 2012. According to Eurostat, in March, 807 000 Portuguese were unemployed, a number slightly inferior to the last two months, which registered 810 000. Portugal still has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the European Union (Greece, Spain, Italy and Croatia are leading) and in terms of youth unemployment the situation is worse. In March, 135 000 youngsters were unemployed, a rise of 6 000 in three months, from 34.6% to 35.4%. As recently stated by economist Wolfgang Munchau, it is feared that countries under adjustment programmes will face at least one generation of unemployment. During the troika’s supervision, 332 000 jobs were destroyed. Employment is at the level of the 1980s: 827 000 unemployed adults and about 140 000 youngsters are looking for a job opportunity.

The statistics are indicating that the troika left Portugal with more unemployment. In fact, there are few unemployed and also fewer employed in Portugal comparing 2013’s last quartiers with 2014’s first quarter. The difference is 12 000 people, who are now either retired or decided to emigrate. In comparison with unemployment figures of the period before the adjustment programme, there are 348 000 more people without a job. Portugal is also the only EU country where unemployment had been dropping almost continuously since 2002 – only 2006 and 2008 were exceptions.

Is this a campaign for the European elections?

Although I have been living abroad for more than one year, I have followed the European election campaign in Portugal mostly through social media and online newspapers and I must say that I am quite disappointed with what I have been reading and hearing. It is a really poor campaign as it is not reflecting on the most crucial problems for the future. In fact, as some political analysts in Portugal have said, what we see is that the competing parties are dealing with side-issues instead of discussing the essential. Rather than discussing what kind of Europe we want and what we should do to get out of the crisis we are in, the main candidates prefer to indulge in exchanging insults and using aggressive language. Why is there so little room for discussing ideas and proposals about the subjects which are the most important for Portuguese citizens? I would like to point out a few: the destination of the new communitarian funds, the improvements in the European monetary system and in the ECB’s role or the democratic deficit of the European Parliament. More important than knowing who is responsible for the current situation, is to understand what kind of Europe we want to build, because it is from the European Union that the solution has to come. This electoral campaign results in an internal debate over the punishment of the Portuguese government or the approval of the opposition, whereas there is a lack of information about the proposals of the candidates for the presidency of the European Commission. The European elections campaign scores poorly on European affairs. Portugal lost power on the European stage due to the troika’s intervention, but this intervention also made it very clear that Portugal’s future is intimately linked to Europe’s. Despite the banking union and the ECB’s increased importance, a European economic government is still far away. To create such a government that would protect peripheral countries will imply changes in the treaties, but the Portuguese politicians seem unprepared for European battles like these, even though they would give Portugal the opportunity to regain strength in Europe. Even the media coverage on the European elections in Portugal shows a lack of information and interest for European issues and fails to underline the importance of these elections for the future of Portugal and Europe. Therefore I fear that abstention will be very high and might reach a new record low.

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