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Portugal at the Crossroads

[This is a translated version of my column in tomorrow’s edition of the Portuguese daily i, which, by the way, has been named the “world’s best-design newspaper” by the Society for News Design.]

We all know that 2011 will be a crucial year for Portugal. And not only because of the crisis.

On February 4th, half a century passed since the beginning of the Portuguese colonial wars. It was the opening of a process in which, through the worsening military situation in Africa, the regime’s decline, the revolution, decolonization, democratization, and finally the accession to the European Union, led Portugal to reorient itself in the world. In the twenty-five years between 1961 and 1986, Portugal abandoned its maritime multicontinental identity and adopted an essentially European posture.

Perhaps coincidentally, this last Wednesday a quarter century passed since the moment the stabilization process of democratic Portugal was completed: the election of Mário Soares as the first civilian president of the 3rd Republic. Since then, between 1986 and 2011, Portugal has developed, become better educated, and cemented its position as a small European country.

And now? What should the Portuguese project for the next quarter century be?

One thing is certain. Globalization has turned Portugal into part of the center; there is no way around it. And the spectacular growth of China will lead to a rapprochement among the North Atlantic countries, pushing Portugal further into the center’s center.

Portugal therefore has a great opportunity ahead, one which is also a challenge: to earn the center. In order to succeed the country needs national strategic concept. Without some guidelines, it will be difficult for Portugal to be better in 2036 than it is today.

What should this strategic concept be? Portugal has advantages that have not been sufficiently exploited. There are at least three that could become pillars of a national strategy.

First, Portugal is today (despite the crisis) a good investment destination and business partner. It has great physical security, foreign and domestic. Its defense is guaranteed, and crime is relatively low. It also has good political security and — despite a strike here and a protest there — a robust social peace. And it has excellent infrastructural security. The roads, the electricity grid, and telecommunications work well.

Second, Portugal occupies a geographical position that allows for its integration into the major global logistics chains. The routes connecting the fast-growing countries in Asia and the South Atlantic to the major markets in Europe and North America pass through its shores. It’s a good place to stop, add value, and move on.

Finally, the Portuguese have a remarkable adaptability. It’s not just their famous ability to get out of a straightjacket. More than that, it is the ability to absorb differences, to feel at ease in any environment regardless of its degree of institutionalization. And then there’s its great openness to innovation.

Could these advantages be reinforced? Sure. Portugal could, for example, have an ambitious sea and ports policy, enhancing its geographical advantage. It could have a transparent and effective court sector, that would no longer sabotage the country’s competitiveness. And, finally, it could have one or two good universities, which would create value and attract global Portuguese-speaking elites. It doesn’t.

But above all, Portugal needs political debate beyond the crisis, the short-term, the tip of its nose. And this has proved impossible. Portuguese political parties are weak, and have little ability to impose their will on the many interest groups that tie the country in a thousand small knots. The solution necessarily involves an agreement between the main political parties on a national strategic concept. Only then could the national project be discussed, defined, and pursued. As Abraham Lincoln said, “politics does not aim at making people think alike, politics aims at allowing people who think differently to act together.” Without understanding this, nothing much is possible.

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Posted at 2:20 pm

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