Saturday, January 22, 2022

Portugal and the Ukraine crisis



Portugal will have plenty of national post-election problems to deal with in the weeks and months ahead, but one of its wider worries that should not be underestimated is the tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine.

Portuguese foreign and defence officials will be carefully watching developments amid fears that the Ukraine confrontation could spiral out of control and affect the whole of Europe. Dialogue and diplomacy between Russia and the United States are at present keeping armed conflict and perhaps even an all-out war at bay. More clarity about the possibility of compromises may emerge as early as this coming week when further negotiations are scheduled.  

Ukraine is an independent sovereign nation. It is not a member of either the EU or NATO. Historically and ethnically it has been close to Russia in that it formed part of the Soviet Union. Geographically located next to Russia, Ukraine also borders on a few EU states that are members of NATO. President Vladimir Putin emphatically demands that Ukraine is not allowed to join the EU or NATO. Equally emphatically, the majority of Ukrainians, especially those in the west of the country, want to be free of any form of Russian domination.

Led by the United States, European countries have joined in the war of words, promising massive economic sanctions if Russia does not back off the troops and military equipment amassed along the frozen  1,600 km  northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine. Russia is also thought to have recently carried out cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and other hostile acts while claiming it has no intention of invading Ukraine.  Should it do so,  a united, swift and strong response is assure

No one in the West is quite sure what Putin’s intentions are, but a weakening or breakup of the EU is suspected of being one of his primary goals. Perhaps he is just exerting pressure to force a rollback of NATO forces in countries close to Russia. Both sides have so far remained resolute in the negotiations held most recently last Friday between the Russian and US foreign ministers. They concluded with a wide gulf between the two.  So where does Portugal fit into all this?

Portugal firmly supports the joint EU and US stance even though it is not a direct participant in the ongoing negotiations. Germany, France and the UK are the main interlocutors with the US and Russia. Fortunately for Portugal, unlike much of the rest of Europe it is not dependent on natural gas supplies from Russia, which it is feared the Kremlin might be using as a weapon in the current stalemate. Portugal’s gas originates in Algeria, Nigeria and the US.

Portugal has concerns even though it is the most distant EU country from Ukraine and thus perhaps the least vulnerable should dialogue fail. It is situated more than 3,000 km west of Ukraine. It’s about the same distance east of the United States. As distant as it is, defence minister, Joao Gomes Gravinho, told his 26 EU counterparts at a meeting earlier this month in Brest, France, that he was delighted with the “absolute refusal” by all EU member states to give in to Russia’s attempts to divide the Union by threatening Ukraine.

The defence minister went so far as to claim: “It’s clear that Russia’s attitudes seek to divide – divide the Europeans and divide the Europeans from the North Americans.” He described it as “a very worrying situation that must be dealt with firmly, with a clear purpose and in unity among all Europeans.” He added that in the case of Ukraine there is strict coordination, as opposed to the confusion last year when US troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan without the prior knowledge by European governments

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a Portuguese professor of sociology at the School of Economics, the University of Coimbra, does not lean nearly as heavily on Russia’s behaviour as most Western commentators. He argues that the United Nations could play a crucial role in defusing what he calls the escalating Cold War.  “This war, which was set in motion by Donald Trump and enthusiastically continued by Joe Biden, seeks to have two targets, China and Russia, and two fronts, Taiwan and Ukraine. It would seem unwise for a declining power such as the United States to engage in confrontation on two different fronts at the same time.”   

Meanwhile, Portugal is pressing the EU to focus much more than it has done in the past on the Atlantic Ocean and strengthen maritime security. This will be addressed in a new version of the EU’s Defence Strategy scheduled to be approved in March, if not before. In past years, top Russian warships have passed along Portugal’s coast, at times as close as 26 nautical miles from the Algarve’s shores.    

 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Whatever the election outcome, democratic freedom will prevail


In the run-up to Portugal’s national legislative election, it’s worth remembering that this country is internationally recognised as a stable parliamentary democracy with a multiparty political system and free and fair elections every four years – except the timing of this latest is different.

The Prime Minister holds the most executive power within the parliamentary system, although the President of the Republic can veto legislation or dissolve parliament and trigger an early election.

President Marcelo Rebelo da Sousa did just that towards the end of last year when the incumbent Socialist government under Antonio Costa failed to get their 2022 budget proposals approved. Hence the snap election on January 30 after just two years.

Under a proportional representation arrangement, Portuguese voters select 230 parliamentarians to fill the seats in the Assembly of the Republic.

The Freedom House global research and advocacy organisation based in Washington D.C., notes that Portugal has established a strong pattern of peaceful power transfers through regular elections since the return to democracy in the 1970s. In its most recent global index, Freedom House has rated Portugal’s political status very highly. It says that Portuguese voters and politicians are free from undue interference by forces outside the political system. Women and members of different ethnic, religious and other minorities enjoy full political rights and participate in the political system. Women held 38%of the seats in the last parliament. Parties espousing racist, fascist or regionalism values are constitutionally prohibited.

The two autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira have their own political structures, legislative and administrative powers. While located a long way from the mainland – the Azores archipelago 1,600 km west in the mid-North Atlantic and Madeira 1,000 south of Portugal and 700 km off the west coast of Africa – the rights of their people to self determination have long been recognised and respected by the parliament in Lisbon. The islanders are culturally, politically and economically closely associated with Portugal and the European Union.

Some top politicians as well as judges, bankers, business executives and football club presidents have plagued continental Portugal with corruption scandals that the government in recent years has struggled to cope with. A report issued by the European Commission has highlighted the need for improved anti-corruption efforts. While several laws to enhance accountability and transparency for elected officials were approved in 2019, enforcement and effectiveness remain inadequate.

Other major challenges facing any new government will include the 2022 budget and making the best use of the economic relief funds provided by the European Union. COVID-19 will remain a very difficult issue in the year and perhaps years ahead.

Further pressing matters, such as strike-prone workers in various sectors and the ill-treatment of convicted prisoners, will be high on the agenda for the next government, but it remains to be seen if they can be tackled directly by a majority government or a more complicated coalition.

The two main centrist parties in the last parliament are sure to dominate again. The centre-left Socialists (PS) had 108 seats and the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) had 79. Opinion polls show the Socialists still the clear favourites to win. The Socialists ruled with support from the far-left from 2015. The centre-right Social Democrats, who are thought of as liberal conservatives, will certainly finish second if not first.

Both the centrist parties and their voters are somewhat concerned about those who are so fed up of the main parties that they will go with the far-right Chega (Enough) party that has whipped up much attention since its founder, Andre Ventura, entered parliament with the party’s single seat in 2019. The far-left, comprising the Left Bloc and the Communists, are trailing, as are The People-Animals-Nature Party and other small groups.

Whatever the latest election result, democracy will be faced with very difficult decisions, but freedom and civil liberties will prevail.



Sunday, January 9, 2022

The pandemic, hospice care, homelessness and hunger




 In addition to the high number of people infected by COVID-19 and the pressure this is placing on the Portuguese national health staff, the pandemic is impacting seriously and increasingly on the many vital charities helping those in need of palliative care, the homeless living on the streets, and also families with insufficient food to put on their tables.

This state of affairs is worrying though understandable because it is due in many cases to COVID restrictions causing insufficient volunteers or donations.


Based in the western Algarve, Madrugada, is an outstanding hospice service that provides free palliative care for those wishing to remain at home. Madrugada recognises that it’s a person’s right to choose where they would preferred to be cared for during their last remaining days, and where they would prefer to die. 

Their end-of-life home services have continued during the pandemic, but have been made more difficult by a shortage of volunteers to staff their charity shops upon which Madrugada heavily rely. Because of advancing years or health issues, many of the shop volunteers have had to limit their exposure to the public during the pandemic. Additionally, precautions are needed for staff assisting patients and for family members who do not live locally and have had tremendous difficulties in travelling to the Algarve to be with their loved ones in their final days.

We will be reporting more on Madrugada in the weeks ahead.

 

Surveys have shown that Portugal has well over 8,000 people living rough, more than half on the streets of the Lisbon metropolitan area. More than 80% of them are men. The total number of homeless rose substantially after the 2008 recession and again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds have been given sheltered accommodation, but shelters are not able to cope with the rising number of homeless nationwide. This is despite a law passed in 2019 that placed the responsibility on the government to provide adequate housing for citizens.

As the international Borgen Project points out, the government is working with NGOs to alleviate - and try to eliminate -  housing problems. In some cases this has provided people with access to independent apartments in Lisbon and elsewhere while offering support services to meet specific individual requirements. Street teams of medical volunteers backed by funding from public and private resources give health care to the homeless. The Lisbon city council has pledged to spend €14.5 million and make 400 new homes available by 2023.

 

The Knomea Global Hunger Index shows that before the pandemic the percentage of undernourished people was 2.5% of the total population. Things have got much worse. Studies conclude that the pandemic has pushed about 400,000 more Portuguese people below the poverty line. Job losses in the past two years have meant that many more low-income and even middle-income families are unable to pay for sufficient meals.

A large number of national and local organisations are dedicated to minimising hunger or risk of hunger. The Federation of Food Banks Against Hunger conduct regular campaigns to collect, package and distribute tons of meals through associates. The campaigns were interrupted by the pandemic in May 2020, but back on track last November with volunteers standing outside supermarkets awaiting donations of healthy foodstuffs.  

The Portuguese branch of the international ReFood movement, started in Portugal 10 years ago, now has more than 60 centres across the country working to “rescue good food to stop waste and help local communities.” It’s run entirely by volunteers that currently number about 8,000. Together with 2,500 partner enterprises, they deliver 150,000 meals per month.


Rather than looking back at the COVID impact difficulties, Portuguese charities are trying to keep one step ahead in case things worsen.  

 

 


Saturday, January 1, 2022

Main concerns for the new year

 



POLITICS

The first major event for the Portuguese population will be the national election on 30 January. Hopefully the turnout of voters will be higher than usual and give one of the parties an overall majority, or at least lead to a working coalition to stabilise the country for the next four years. Bolstered by its competent handing of the COVID crisis, the centre-left Socialists (PS) led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa are still favourites to win. The far-right Chega party will certainly increase its representation in parliament and may finish third in the election after the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD). The Left Bloc and the Communists are trailing. One of the first tasks of any new government will be to review the 2022 budget proposals rejected by the previous parliament, which led to this month’s snap election.


COVID-19

As it enters its third year, there is no chance of the pandemic going away anytime soon and probably not in the 12 months ahead. More irritating uncertainties, controversial decisions and disruptions are expected. Like the rest of the European Union, Portugal finished 2021 with a surge in infections caused largely by the Omicron variant. High vaccination rates and everyone abiding by the necessary restrictions will be essential to keeping hospitalisations manageable. The official mantra will probably be unchanged: “The Portuguese government has been taking all necessary public health measures to protect the entire population as well as our visitors.” Caution: COVID can be a fast changing scenario, but some website articles are published without a date and are, in fact, out of date.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE

On the shores of the Atlantic but still part of the Mediterranean climate region, Portugal is one of the most vulnerable European countries to extreme weather conditions. Worsening heat-waves, wildfires and droughts are anticipated, endangering agricultural production, natural habitats and wildlife. Sea levels will continue to rise and pose a threat to coastal communities. The UN Ocean Conference scheduled for 27 June to 1 July in Lisbon will address the impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans, which is one of the most significant challengers to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Of special concern is “eco-anxiety”. In a recent survey, 81% of Portuguese respondents aged between 16 and 25 said they felt “frightened,” “sad”, “helpless” or “angry” because what they perceived to be a lack of global action on climate change.


THE ECONOMY

As in most other European countries the pandemic sparked a recession in Portugal, but the latest OECD survey predicts that the economy will grow by 5.8% in 2022 with the gross domestic product surpassing its pre-crisis level by the middle of the year. The survey notes that robust growth is mainly driven by domestic demand and will be stimulated by the absorption of EU funds. Portugal is to receive €13.9 billion in grants and €2.7 billion in loans from the EU until 2026. The timely arrival of €2.2 billion, 13% of the pre-financing payment under the EU’s recovery and recovery programme, could be complicated if there is a failure to end the current political stalemate in this month's election. The recent rise in production costs, due mainly to energy prices, is not expected to fuel underlying price pressures substantially.

 

TOURISM

Tourism and travel-related revenues accounted for 19.8% of the country’s GDP in 2019. It had increased from 11.9% in 2000, growing at an average annual rate of 2.83%. This sector will have to cope with the inherent difficulties of COVID if the pandemic carries on into spring and summer this year. Much will depend on any restrictions on airline and hospitality services, particularly in the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto regions, as well as the ease with which holidaymakers will be allowed to travel from Portugal’s six top markets, namely Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands. Visitors from abroad will be welcomed figuratively with open arms, but many more workers will be needed. The shortfall of workers in the travel and tourism sector is said to be 85,000.    

 

CORRUPTION

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the NGO Transparency International will continue to their work in uncovering corruption that has been rampant at top levels of society in Portugal for years. ICIJ’s 2021 ‘Pandora Papers’, following its earlier ‘Luanda Leaks’, has exposed the hidden assets and secret offshore dealings and criminal enterprises of the global elite. One of ICIJ’s targets has been Isabel dos Santos, the billionaire daughter of Angola’s former dictator, once distinguished as Africa’s richest woman, now disgraced and living in exile. Her assets in Portugal and elsewhere have been seized and she is banned from the US as various criminal investigations continue. Other cases we will be hearing more about in 2022 involve former Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates who is awaiting trial accused on multiple corruption charges and former economy minister, Manuel Pinto, arrested for alleged corruption linked to the energy company EDP.