For those who, like myself, have had the inconvenience and at times the justified fear
in crossing borders in Europe for most of their lives, it is now strange that crossing
them without guards or controls is both a reason for rejoicing and the cause of a certain
Admittedly Europe has achieved its ambition of again being a united whole, open to
all. For the time being, however, this unity is one of disagreements and dissenting interests.
All forces are going in opposite or diverging directions.
So it is that when I now cross those same European borders that divided us before,
the first thing that springs to mind is that I am only able to do so with such ease partly
because I am not seeking employment, nor am I hoping to settle down there, and my
savings in the bank guarantee that I will not be a burden on anyone.
This situation is identical for almost twelve thousand Dutch citizens, who similarly
are comfortably off and now living in Portugal . However, if an equal number of my
countrymen decided that they would immediately like to live-out the European dream,
thinking to set up in Holland and working for a comparably comfortable future, they
would find that those same borders, providing untrammelled access to the well-heeled,
would be hermetically sealed.
I understand perfectly that nothing is as simple as I would like it to be. Economics
has its precepts, politics has its laws, officialdom its ways; and I must equally concede
that the foundations of the European Union are not going to be built overnight, if they
are to be sufficiently solid as to easily absorb attack from the ambition of its wealthier
countries, or from the greed of its poorer countries, from the nationalism of some, and
the corruption of others, from forces opposing it from outside and those undermining
it from whitin.
Important steps have no doubt been taken, notably in scientific cooperation, in the
vitalization of markets and financing, in improved transport and communications. The
same can be said for culture - now treated as a commodity - that is being spread by a
growing number of ‘consumers'. There is indeed a great deal of concern within and
beyond the European Union, but I see no reason to fear that this might lead to my
losing its identity or that my language will be ‘stifled' by foreign words. For
centuries both have proved able to withstand more serious dangers, under
circumstances. Furthermore, all too frequently, loss is confused
with evolution, and things
are thought to be disappearing when they are simply changing.
As an ordinary citizen, my capacity for the economic and social analysis of Europe is
necessarily limited, and any European Parliament member will be able effortlessly to
my conclusions with surveys and statistics, or arguments to the effect that the
goals approach an ideal, the longer the time required for them to be attained.
At the same time, it is no less true that the Europe we have at present has discarded
some some of the ideas held out to us by its founders, But since, generally speaking, the
collective memory is demonstrably short, perhaps the true purpose of economic and political
ideas is to serve as a decoy. Indeed, for those who follow with interest, the dynamics of
Europe appear to be proceeding amid inequalities that are not promising for the future.
On joining the European Economic Community in 1986, Portugal was close to ruin.
After a prolonged fascist dictatorship, a costly colonial war and maladjustments caused by
the return to democracy in 1974, its budget was teetering on the edge of a third world
economy. Eleven years later it seems that, from the material point of view, the propitious
results of accession can only be compared to the Golden Age of Discoveries, when
became a great power.
The gold and spice trade of that period have now been replaced by community
Portugal has become a gigantic building site and Lisbon , as always, has attracted
of benefits and projects. It cannot be denied that everywhere there has been
in communications infrastructure, and here and there suburbs and bridges
have gone up.
There is definitely some development and renewal.
However, it is just not the spectacular influx of big business and improvement works
offer parallels with sixteenth century Portugal. The social and political similarities
Portugal and that of the past are uncomfortable if not disturbing.
In the sixteenth century, spices and gold were the main sources of income for Portugal,
as are subsidies nowadays. This led to uncertainity, because such sources of income do not
depend on productive or planning activities and are contingent on circumstances. In both
cases they are subject to influences and interests that always did, and still do, far exceed
of Portugal as a nation.
It is evident that the European Union would like to be, at least in theory, the generous
parent providing refuge for other countries, without regard to the means nor the importance
of each. Despite democratic process, however, there is a sad difference in practice between
the favourable treatment reserved for the wealth of some and the qualifications placed on the
embarrassing economic plight of others.
It might be argued that both favouritism and prior qualification are not the result of ill-will.
They are simply due to the operation of the economic principles by which everything is
governed. Officialdom, according to this argument, does not operate in accordance to
sense, fut follows a priori rules that do not have the common good as their purpose.
of this de-personalization of government make me especially sceptical
the position of my
country within the European Union.
I have no doubt that the supply of subsidies will continue for some time at least, and
benefit will be obtained from this. However, when I look at trends in Portugal
over the last decade,
I ask myself the compelling question: “Benefit for whom?” The reply
the same as in the sixteenth
century: benefit for those in power. Then it was the royal
and the nobility; today, it is the
politicians, the bureaucrats and the bourgeoisie.
My reaction does not respond to nostalgia for the good old days, with rose-tinted images
past and a gloomy image of things present. On the contrary, since 1986 the economic
poorer sectors of society have certainly improved in Portugal . However, any
improvement is only
so when compared to the disastrous condition the country was in
and disappears into
insignificance when measured on the scale of Europe . Today,
the wage that
a labourer is given in
Portugal for one day of work is not much greater than
hourly wage paid to workers in the wealthier
parts of Europe.
Not since the sixteenth century, however, has Portugal witnessed such a show of
Although the number of cars in Portugal has increased by thirty per cent in
of this kind fails to hide the fact that it will be a long time before
donkeys cease to be the
sole means of transport for many.
Retirement pensions, sickness benefit and unemployment benefit in Portugal are mere
while bureaucrats and politicians make no secret of receiving - within the law -
three or four lucrative
retirement pensions. Medical care is largely inadequate, levels of
are alarming, and poverty
is unremmiting. In certain areas of Trás-os-Montes
and Alentejo region,
depopulation exceeds twenty
five per cent. Villages are being gradually
abandoned and by the
same proportion there is an increase
in shanty towns around the cities.
With a total disregard
for the repercussions on society and the
irreparable damage caused to
the environment, farmland
has been transformed into huge eucalyptus
plantations to supply
the cellulose factories. Those
who introduced such policies will not be concerned
that suicide among Alentejo villagers
is today endemic and that the erosion of the already
soil, caused by eucalyptus, will result in
a real danger of desertification.
Historians and economists will say that, ever since the world began, the well-being of
inevitably involved prejudicing others; but while it may be true that the European
for the purpose of once and for all eradicating poverty in Europe, it |
is no less valid
that in some of its
countries the difference between the misery of some and
the opulence of
others, between the comfort
of the wealthy and the despair of the neddy, is
Is this all Brussels 's fault? Probably not. So is it the fault of the government in each
Perhaps it is.
It may be also tru to say that this is not a question of ascribing blame. At this point in
are in a state of transition. The true, proper, perfect European Union will necessarily
decades to achieve. Tomorrow's progress will largely compensate for the
sacrifices thar are required
today. We must pay less heed to the shortcomings and obstacles,
and set our sights on the hopes for
the future that, rich or poor, is our duty to develop
When all's said and done, in each of our lives and in the European Union as a whole or its
component countries, the real world may just have to be that way, with good
moments and bad moments,
paupers and nabobs, disappointments and hope.
Personally, my European dream was as befits a vision: full of beautiful images of solidarity,
happiness, progress, unfurled flags, shared harvests. Only, in common with other
dreams I've had, this
one is also in danger of disappering, leaving me surrounded by dying
illusions and half-fulfilled hopes.
Fortunately, from among my half-fulfilled hopes, from time
to time a ray of sunshine gleams.
(translation: Dermot Byrne)