Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Royal couple locked out of their limo

Compared with Portugal's other current problems, the one in Sintra today turned out to be easily solved, though somewhat embarrassing.

On the second day of their visit to Portugal, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall were supposed to plant two roses in the magnificent rose garden at the Palace of Montserrat. For security reasons, this plan was adjusted and they just planted roses in a couple of pots next to the palace.

Diário de Notícias reports that as they were about to leave amid tight security, it became apparent that the car key had been locked inside the royal limousine. This caused great mirth among the 200 or so guests present. Charles and Camilla had to leave the palace in another car.

No doubt Lord Byron, who famously referred to Sintra as "glorious Eden", would also have been amused.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Charles and Camilla exude warmth during cool and wet reception

The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall were given a less than rapturous welcome at their first engagement in Portugal today, but it had much to do with the weather which, the Duchess later joked, they had "brought with them from Britain".

The few spectators awaiting their arrival at the 16th century Jerónimos Monastery got cold and wet. Many were pupils from the English-language St Peter's school.

The car carrying the royal couple came armed with umbrellas, but Camilla was wearing a lovely dark blue coat much better suited to a pleasant spring day. As it was, there was a chilly wind and it was pouring with rain. 

Despite the weather, those who spoke with the royals were taken by the genuine warmth of their personalities. In their chatty exchanges, both Charles and Camilla came across as very open and natural, said Lú Batley who took these photographs.

The royal couple placed a wreath at the tomb of the iconic Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões at the monastery. The Duchess was presented with a posy of flowers by seven-year-old Ilona Verdon-Roe.

Later, the royal couple were guests of honour at a state dinner at Lisbon's Queluz Palace hosted by President Aníbal Cavaco Silva and his wife, Dr Maria Cavaco Silva. The 100 guests sat down to tomato soup, sea bass and a traditional Portuguese fig-based dessert. In a toast, Charles paid tribute to the long tradition of mutual respect and cooperation between the two countries.

This was the start of a 10-day tour of Portugal, Spain and Morocco, mainly to promote UK trade.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Decisive days....Saturday 26

An earthquake measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale shook the western Algarve this morning but caused no damage. It was a mild and untroubling event compared with the shattering problems of the past few days that seem set to continue well into the future.

The President of the Republic, Aníbal Cavaco Silva is expected to call for a snap election in late May or early June. This has been requested by all the political parties, including the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD).

The PSD leader, Pedro Passos Coelho, told the President he wanted an election as soon as possible. He said he was optimistic that his party would win an absolute majority.

The political turmoil has heightened concerns that Portugal will need an EU bailout. Even as EU leaders in Brussels agreed their comprehensive new plans aimed at calming markets and making the euro less vulnerable, Portugal's 10-year bond yields rose to 7.80 percent, a record high that shows investors fear the country might not be able to pay off debts that are coming due.

Portugal must make a large debt repayment in May, while the country is still in political limbo, and an even larger one in mid-June, probably shortly after a new government takes over from the current caretaker.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Decisive days......Friday 25

Portugal's continued stubbornness in resisting a bailout is frustrating EU leaders who have reached agreement in Brussels on a comprehensive financial bailout fund that they hope will resolve Europe's debt crisis.

After months of negotiation, only details remain to be tidied up for a permanent new version of the European Stability Mechanism to help troubled eurozone countries.

Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister José Sócrates is sticking by his insistence that Portugal will not follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a rescue package.

It is generally accepted in Brussels, however, that it is only a matter of time before Portugal will have to bow to pressure and request outside financial help.

The political as well as economic mess Portugal finds itself in has overshadowed what was to have been an upbeat summit in Brussels.

In Lisbon, the outcome is awaited of discussions between President Aníbal Cavaco Silva and the six political parties represented in parliament on whether they would prefer to form a coalition government or go for an early election. The latter seems more likely, probably in May or early June.

An opinion poll published today showed that the lSocial Democrats would win an absolute majority if elections were held now.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Decisive days....Thursday 24

Today's EU summit meeting in Brussels has been thrown into some disarray by Portugal having neither a prime minister nor an elected government at a time of financial crisis.

The resignation of José Sócrates and the collapse of his Socialist government in Lisbon yesterday have left negotiators in Brussels unsure of who they should be negotiating with. Sócrates is attending the meeting but only as head of a caretaker government. A new general election in Portugal is weeks away.

Meanwhile, the question of a bailout for Portugal appears to be in limbo. The EU is willing to provide one of about €60 to €80 billion, but Sócrates and the Socialists are adamant they don't want or need it.

On resigning yesterday, Sócrates warned yet again of what he called “the profoundly negative consequences of seeking foreign aid."

No formal talks on a bailout have begun in Brussels, but EU member states are believed to be putting pressure on Portugal to ask for an assistance package amid concerns that continued resistance would endanger the stability of the 17-member euro zone.

It is thought a snap election could be held in May. “In the meantime, it's going to be a rocky few weeks” for Portugal, said Angel Gurria, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a speech in Washington.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Decisive days...Wednesday 23

Prime Minister José Sócrates resigned after Parliament rejected austerity measures proposed by the minority Socialist government to help Portugal avoid having to seek an international bailout.

Sócrates and his party had long opposed a bailout because of the tough fiscal conditions it would bring.

Parliament's rejection of the proposals “has taken away from the government all conditions to govern," the out-going prime minister said in a televised statement after the vote. He said his government would remain in power in a caretaker capacity.

All of the opposition parties spoke against the government's austerity measures, which called for reduced pensions and state spending.

Finance Minister Fernando Teixeira dos Santos warned that a rejection of the government's plan "will provoke an immediate rise in the country's risk and immediate consequences in terms of credit ratings."

To have its  measures accepted and thus avert the collapse of the government, the Socialist Party needed 116 votes.The government has only 97 of the total of 230 seats in parliament.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Decisive days: Portugal on the brink

Portugal's minority Socialist Government could fall tomorrow. This is likely if the opposition centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) vote, as expected, against austerity measures designed to ease the country's huge debt burden and stave off a bailout.

Deadlock emerged yesterday when the PSD under Pedro Passos Coelho again refused to back new measures, thus making it likely that Prime Minister José Sócrates and his government will resign. (Coelho is on the left, Sócrates on the right of this photo).

Resignation would thrust Portugal into political limbo pending an early general election. Political limbo would further complicate an economic crisis at the very time Portugal and other Eurozone countries are trying to build investor confidence.

The Social Democrats, who are virtually assured of winning the next election, agree that the country must take radical steps to reduce the country's debt. They agreed to previous tax increases and pay cuts, but say proposed further measures, such as freezing old-age pensions, would be deeply unfair to more vulnerable members of society.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have made their feelings clear in recent weeks by taking to the streets and holding strikes. Further demonstrations are in the offing.

The current frenzy of activity relating to Portuguese affairs continues on Thursday with Eurozone leaders meeting for a two-day summit on problems facing the bloc and, in particular, its weaker members. Then Portugal will be faced with finding cash to meet April and May bond repayments amounting to almost €9.5 billion.

Into the maelstrom next Monday at the start of a three-day visit will step the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall who, among other things, are hoping to promote British business interests in Portugal.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prince Charles and Camilla to visit Portugal at a time of turmoil

There was something surreal about yesterday's announcement from Clarence House in London that the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are to pay an official visit to Portugal this month.

A delightful diversion for Portugal's upper echelons provided by their oldest ally?  An unintentional red rag to the hoi polloi in a debt-ridden republic at a time of political, economic and social turmoil? Maybe a bit of both.

This latest royal tour, which begins in Lisbon on 28th March, will also take Charles and Camilla to Spain and Morocco. Although it was probably arranged many months ago, the timing and objectives now seem unfortunate.

It's a ten-day freebie intended to fly the flag for Britain. To be fair, it wasn't the royal couple's idea. They are making the trip at the request of the British Government. The main themes are trade and investment promotion, as well as climate change and the construction of low carbon economies.

In Lisbon, the Duke and Duchess will celebrate long-standing co-operation between the Portuguese and British Navies, support British trade and investment opportunities and highlight the work of the sizeable resident British community. The President of Portugal, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, will host an official dinner in the capital. There will be a morning trip to the historic city of Évora in the Alentejo, north of the Algarve.

This will be Camilla's first official visit to Portugal. Charles has been here twice before. Both are much more familiar with Spain. Charles has been there 10 times already and after Lisbon he and Camilla will be received in Madrid by the Prince and Princess of Asturias. Later they will be wined and dined by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, old chums of Charles.

In Morocco they will be the guests of King Mohammed VI who has recently announced constitutional reforms in the face of demonstrations broken up in Casablanca last weekend by riot police. Clarence House would not comment on security arrangements for the tour except to say they would be “closely monitored.”

To put things further into context, the announcement by Clarence House came just three days after the Socialist Government in Lisbon introduced more controversial austerity measures. They did so without informing President Cavavo Silva or the opposition Social Democrats beforehand.

The new measures include cuts in operational and administrative costs for the state-run health service. Labour costs and unemployment benefits are also to be reviewed at a time when unemployment is at a record level of more than 11%. Manuel Carvalho da Silva, head of Portugal's largest union, CGTP, said the new measures "will create an even more severe recession in a country that is already stricken by poverty.”

Portugal is now close to the brink of political collapse. An early general election seems inevitable and all the indications are that the Socialists will be replaced by the centre-right Social Democrats with an absolute majority in parliament.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of frustrated young people, the so-called Geração à Rasca, took to the streets of Lisbon, Oporto and elsewhere last weekend to air their feelings of hopelessness and protest about abysmal pay and job prospects. Today the Metro train system in Lisbon was brought to a total standstill because of a strike over pay cuts. Tomorrow, truckers protesting about rising diesel prices are expected to stymie filling-station supplies. In the Algarve, further disruptive protests are planned against the introduction of motorway tolls seen to be harmful to tourism and other local busineses.

In some ways, of course, nothing much has changed. There are the haves and the have-nots. The travails of the real world are still a far-cry from the niceties of royal receptions.

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.