Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Modern values:
Money tops today's worries
The American Business Insider website reminded its readers on Monday this week that “the Portuguese are the most fearful people in Europe.” The comment referred to a survey conducted in 2002 by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Statistics. The survey concluded, for example, that 71% of Portuguese were fearful of a world war, 87% were scared of epidemics and more than half had anguish about mad cow disease. As worriers, the Portuguese were rated top of the EU pile, more angst-riddled than the Greeks and much more so than the Irish. And that was long before the emergence of the current economic crisis!

Another often commented upon feature of the Portuguese psyche is a well-developed concern about honour. That came to the fore on Tuesday when the news agencies reported Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates as saying that if Portugal accepted a Greek or Irish-style bailout it “would lose its prestige and dignity.” It would no longer be able “to present itself to the world as a country that succeeds in solving its problems.”

While the media are often keen to emphasise and even exaggerate difficulties, Sócrates cannot be accused of that - not when it comes to the bailout issue anyway. For months he has been insisting that Portugal does not need or want a bailout. He has been at pains to downplay the problems that many analysts believe make a bailout inevitable. He did so again after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last week.

“I believe that the responsibility of any political leader is to have confidence in the Portuguese people, confidence in his country," Sócrates declared yesterday, with a summit meeting of 17 eurozone leaders scheduled for this Friday.

But do the Portuguese people have confidence in their prime minister? He has done much to try to stabilise the economic situation but he has not done enough, say his critics. They include a large section of the country's youth who are expected to join street protests in Lisbon, Oporto and other cities on Saturday. The organisers are hoping for a massive, non-partisan and peaceful turnout.

The idea for the protests originated with three friends meeting last month in a Lisbon cafe. João Labrincha, 27, Alexandre de Sousa Carvalho, 26, and Paula Gil, 25. They decided to use Facebook to mobilise and give voice to the country's disenchanted youth, the so-called 'lost generation'.

In a few weeks, without spending a single euro, the trio had spread the word among tens of thousands of young people who see little prospect of secure, decently paid employment – or any employment at all.

Protesters will be encouraged not only to put their reasons for protesting in writing, but to suggest solutions. The plan is to deliver the paperwork to parliament. “With greater social dialogue between politicians, employers and civil society, you can change the situation in which we live,” said one of the organisers.

President Aníbal Cavaco Silva seems to agree. In a speech today marking the start of his second term as Head of State, he pointedly reaffirmed his "great confidence" in the country's youth. He expressed his "profound conviction" that young people could make a crucial contribution to building a more developed and fairer country, and one with greater credibility internationally.  

Money may continue for some time to be a major worry, but mercifully just now there is much less talk of a world war, epidemics or mad cow disease.

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