Thursday, October 31, 2019

Portugal staying on course

The centuries-old Anglo-Portuguese alliance is sure to continue even though the United Kingdom looks like it will soon be saying farewell to Portugal and the other 26 member states of the European Union.

Generally regarded as the world’s oldest alliance still in force, it was signed in 1386 between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Kingdom of England. The name “United Kingdom” only came into being centuries later.  

Nowadays, however, the United Kingdom is far from united – especially politically – and it also looks like downsizing in the not too distant future.

The Brexit debacle seems likely to result not just in the UK’s departure from the European Union but also in the departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK.

In the 2016 “remain or leave” referendum, a majority in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. 

Infuriated by the attitude of the London-based parliament, the Scottish National Party is fast gearing up for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

In Northern Ireland the demographics indicate that a small but growing majority of the population are in favour of quitting the UK and uniting with the Republic of Ireland. 

Another group of people who look like opting out of the UK are many of the Portuguese immigrants who live there. Portugal wants them back home.

The percentage of Portuguese citizens living abroad is one of the highest in the world and a lot of them are young. So Portugal has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and is struggling economically with an aging population.

Many skilled and unskilled working Portuguese emigrated during the debt crisis and the harsh austerity inflicted on the country between 2011 and 2014.  They left because unemployment was so high, wages were so low and the future looked so bleak.

While Portuguese emigrants are happy with conditions in a number of foreign countries both inside and outside the EU, the bitter internal squabbling about Brexit over the past three years has created worrying uncertainties among working people and their families in the UK, as well as those back home relying on remittances. 

But over the same period, Portugal’s gross domestic product has rebounded to pre-crisis levels and unemployment has dropped.  Nonetheless, even though the economic situation and employment opportunities have greatly improved, not all emigrants want to return.

By way of encouragement, the previous Socialist government introduced incentives such cash grants and tax breaks.  Company directors hope this will help fill a serious shortage of specialist staff in virtually all business sectors.
So concerned is Prime Minister António Costa that during the recent formal inauguration of the Socialist Party’s second term in government he announced that demographic sustainability in this country was one of his top priorities.

Tourism has been buoying the Portuguese economy in recent years and British holidaymakers are expected to continue flooding in regardless of the eventual outcome of Brexit.
Some British residents have already sold up and returned to the UK, while others are holding their breath despite assurances from both the Portuguese and British governments that they will continue to be welcome here.

Uncertainties about continued residency or moving to Portugal will persist until the whole Brexit mess is sorted out. 

Meanwhile, Portugal is staying on course. Its centuries-old alliance will remain in place regardless of Brexit, as will its staunch loyalty to the European Union. 


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Socialists in compromise talks

As the centre-left Socialist victory in the October 6 general election fell short of producing an outright majority government, caretaker Prime Minister António Costa is considering practical options.

 Costa has ruled out the written alliance the Socialists had for the last four years with the far-left.

The Socialists may be able to arrange a less formal pact on specific issues with either or both the Left Bloc and the Communist Party.

The absence of a formal alliance with the far-left could also make it easier for the centre-left to join forces with their old mainstream rivals, the centre-right.

Uncertainty exists but compromises seem to be on the cards and inter-party discussions are presently ongoing.

This will be good news to Socialists in other countries in the European Union that have been sidelined in recent years, particularly by right-wing Populists.

Meanwhile, international investors do not seem worried about Portugal’s current political uncertainty.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Age-old miracle still attracts millions

While the number of practising Catholics in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe is in decline, the Sanctuary of Fátima remains one of the most visited Catholic places of pilgrimage in the world. Pilgrims will be pouring in this weekend for the 102nd anniversary of the “Miracle of the Sun”.  

According to Sanctuary statistics, the annual number of visitors to Fátima over the past ten years has fluctuated between 3 million and 6 million.  The centenary year, 2017, exceeded all expectations with 9.4 million pilgrims from 109 countries.

Fátima attracts the largest number of visitors around 13 May and 13 October, the first and last dates in the six successive months in 1917 when three children tending sheep claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

It was on 13 October that a miracle is said to have occurred at the time and place prophesied to the children by the Virgin Mary. The event occurred before an estimated crowd of 70,000.  

Many believers consider that the way in which the sun whirled and seemed to defy all cosmic law was one of the most outstanding miracles of the 20th century if not the entire history of Christendom. 

Among the crowd on that day there were contradicting opinions about what actually happened, with some people saying they did not see the sun do anything unusual at all. 

Since then, psychologists, meteorologists and other scientists have offered plenty of non-supernatural explanations, including the power of suggestion and mass hallucination.

Unlike at Lourdes in France, the Sanctuary of Fátima does not actively encourage the idea of miracle cures for the seriously ill. An official spokesperson explained: “Fátima's spirituality is very much centred on prayer, conversion and reparation, with particular attention to prayer for the Pope and peace in the world”. 

In May 2017 Pope Francis visited the Sanctuary to attend the centenary celebrations and canonise the two shepherd children, Jacinta and her brother Francisco, who died of influenza two years after their visions. 

Portuguese make up the majority of the pilgrims each year, but this October registered groups will be coming from other predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy, Poland and France, and from countries such as Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Senegal, where the overwhelming majority of the populations are Muslim.

Sanctuary officials have confirmed that this weekend they will also be welcoming pilgrims from Sri Lanka, where most citizens are Buddhists, and from South Korea, where all the major religions co-exist but most people have no formal affiliation with any. South Korea is the fastest growing Asian country represented at the Sanctuary, with about 250 South Koreans in seven groups having announced many weeks ago their planned presence this weekend.

In recent times the distribution of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics has been changing significantly. About 80% of Portugal's population are nominally Catholic, but increasingly empty pews and closing churches indicate a huge decline in the numbers attending Mass – thought to be down to about 18% of the population and also falling steeply elsewhere in western and southern Europe. 
Europe as a whole is now home to just 24% of the world’s Catholics, compared to about 65% in 1917. Where Catholicism still has a strong hold are parts of Africa, and Central and South America. In Asia, Catholicism is flourishing in the Indian states of Goa and Kerala; and in the Philippines, 86% of the population are Catholic.

Catholicism has been the dominant religion among the Portuguese since Roman times and even through the centuries of Moorish occupation. The Church, along with monarchies, continued to control the nation well after the 18th century Age of Enlightenment which advocated individual liberty and eradication of religious authority. 

 “The time has come for people of reason to say enough is enough”, says Prof. Richard Dawkins, the outspoken Oxford University evolutionary biologist. “Religious faith discourages independent thought, it’s divisive and it’s dangerous”, he says.

Like Dawkins, many contemporary atheists and agnostics condemn the routine ideological indoctrination of the young from an early age, particularly by Catholics and Muslims. They regard such indoctrination as a form of totalitarianism based on a collection of made-up writings that are anything but the “Word of God”. 

A close read of the original story of Fátima, say the sceptics, must persuade all but the most blinkered dogmatists to question the mindset of the child visionaries. It is surely obvious that particularly the two highly imaginative girls, Lúcia and Jacinta, aged ten and seven, were highly imaginative and utterly devoted to angels and the image of a person they identified as Our Lady of the Rosary who became popularly known as Our Lady of Fátima. 

Despite the hopes of secularists, religion is not going away any time soon. About 2,700 different religions exist today to which 84% of humanity is affiliated. Christianity has 2.1 billion followers. Islam, with 1.6 billion, is growing at a considerably faster rate and by 2050 its numbers are expected to equal those of Christianity.

The gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, such as Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Athena, Aphrodite and Nemesis, have long passed into mythology. To sceptics, Our Lady of Fátima is already a myth, but to the pilgrims visiting the Sanctuary this weekend she is very real.  

Part of the crowd at Fátima on 13 October 1917

Fátima Basilica  2019