Europe

Portuguese fear Irish bail-out threat could spread

Shop window in Porto's Baixa shopping area (17 Nov 2010)
Image caption A shop window in Porto advertises a "crisis" sale

Many Portuguese are watching events unfolding in the Irish Republic almost obsessively, aware that if Dublin accepts a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund and European Union, their own country could be next.

EU finance ministers have said they are determined to stop the Irish banking crisis engulfing other member states.

While EU officials are supportive in public of the deficit-reduction efforts of Portugal's Socialist government, they have also made clear that they want more detail.

Trauma

In Portugal itself, the possibility that the IMF might "land at Lisbon airport", as one participant put it during one of the countless televised debates on the crisis in recent weeks, is being discussed with some nervousness.

There is still a trauma from the fund's previous visits during a period of austerity in the 1980s, when its approach was rather different and Portugal's economy significantly less developed.

Image caption A placard in the centre of Lisbon advertises next week's planned general strike

"There is not this understanding that an IMF intervention today is completely different from how it was back in the 1980s," said Pedro Lains, an economist at Lisbon's Institute of Social Sciences.

On both occasions then, IMF-monitored "stabilisation programmes" sharply checked public spending and sent the economy into a deep recession at a time when the country had only the barest of welfare safety nets.

"Because now the government is doing its job, if the IMF comes it won't impose policies drastically different from the government's, but it will ease access to credit for the Portuguese state," said Mr Lains.

The tone in Lisbon is now changing, with government officials and leading members of the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democrats, saying IMF intervention would be no drama, and may be necessary.

Portugal's Finance Minister, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, this week surprised many by going so far as to say there was a "high risk" of the country seeking emergency aid.

He later rowed back, telling journalists in Brussels the government was not actively seeking help nor had it reason to do so.

General strike

Back home, the mood remains grim. There is militant opposition to the current austerity policies, with the two largest trade union federations planning a general strike for 24 November - their first such joint action in two decades.

But on the streets of Lisbon, many people seem resigned.

"The crisis of 2008 is like the Great Depression, only we have learned some things from the past," said accountant Fernando da Silva, 39.

"Probably we know how to solve the problem, but it's going to take a long time and we have to suffer."

"We have to heal the wounds first," agreed his friend Frederico Meireles, 38.

Those wounds - including some of the highest levels of household indebtedness in the EU - could remain for some time.

Unemployment is well over 10% and set to rise further if, as most analysts predict, the economy stagnates next year.

Recovery

Continued low interest rates may prompt Portugal's banks to start lending to business at reasonable rates again, which would lift the economy, but the government's deficit-cutting would dampen recovery.

Image caption Analysts believe Portugal's economy is likely to stagnate in 2011

Despite lacking a majority in parliament, the Socialists have so far been successful in steering through a state budget for 2011 that aims to shrink the deficit to 4.6% of GDP from its peak of over twice that in 2009.

Some wonder if the government will fully implement measures that include cuts of up to 10% in the salaries of public sector employees, and higher value-added tax and other levies. But economist Pedro Lains is confident it will.

"We have a history of not very good finances but also a history of good rebalancing of accounts," he said.

In fact, economic growth accelerated in the third quarter, to an annual rate of 1.5%, thanks to an export boom in some sectors.

That contrasts with Spain, which saw a stagnant third quarter, in part because the government in Madrid was quicker to suspend the stimulus measures that both governments introduced last year to counter the recession.

Although Ireland is a special case because of the huge impact of the banks on the public sector deficit, in some respects Portugal faces a trickier situation.

While the state's financing needs are taken care of through to the end of 2010, it will need to issue 15bn euros of debt in the first four months of 2011.

But the fact that Portugal is being lumped together with the Irish Republic perhaps makes the crisis a little less traumatic for Portuguese public opinion, given that the one-time "Celtic tiger" was long seen as an example to follow.

Less flattering is the fact that a former colony, East Timor, has offered to help out by buying Portuguese bonds.

Timor is one of the world's poorest nations, although it has hopes of exploiting significant offshore oil resources.

The territory won its independence in 1999 after a UN-organised referendum following a quarter of a century of Indonesian occupation that had been vociferously opposed by Portugal.

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