Portugal’s Economy Rebounds, Though Problems Persist

The Portuguese economy is resisting the prevailing gloom in Europe.

Activity remained strong, with GDP rising by 0.5% in the first quarter, or 1.8% at an annual rate, compared with 1.2% in the euro zone, forecasts Brussels.

Following the trend of 2018, Portugal’s good economic health comes mainly from private consumption fueled by rising wages and employment dynamics. The preliminary data, says the national statistics institute, “reflect a significant acceleration in investment.”

The government deficit has fallen from 7.2% of GDP to 0.5% of GDP since 2014, and the unemployment rate from a peak of 17.9% in early 2013, to about 6% currently.

“The tourism sector has been the largest driver of the export recovery in Portugal,” Ben Westmore, the head of the Portugal desk in the Economics Department of the OECD, confirmed to VOA.

These numbers make Portugal the darling of international financial institutions. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, praised Portugal’s economic recovery recently in Lisbon. “Portugal and the Portuguese people deserve huge credit for their efforts, for which they should be proud,” Lagarde said.

Low wages

Despite the spectacular recovery and the fall of unemployment, a sense of precariousness and low wages are everywhere in Portugal. The minimum wage is only $669 (€600) per month — a number that has not prompted the return of many young adults, who left during the crisis. Between 2008 and 2014, 120,000 people left Portugal per year. Twenty percent were highly skilled workers, according to professor Joao Miguel Trancoso Lopes.

This sociologist undertook a study and interviewed many of them to understand their motivations to stay abroad or come back in their country.

“They do not feel Portugal is full of opportunities. The low wages are a real hurdle for them. They look for better jobs, outside of the country. Unlike the previous generations, the young Portuguese leaving abroad do not dream of returning home,” he explained to VOA.

This professor used to be paid $3,345 (€3,000) per month before the crisis. Today, he earns $2,901.99 (€2,600) per month. The health care system is another sector that was heavily targeted for budget cuts during the crisis.

Bruno Maia is a neurologist in Lisbon. He acknowledges the current government took some measures to lift the burden, such as hiring of doctors and nurses.

“The damages made to our health care system are so pronounced that these new jobs do not compensate what was lost during the crisis. It is not enough. Problems are accumulating and we are struggling,” he underscores to VOA. For example, Maia says non-emergency procedures, like an MRI, could take up a year to be performed in Portugal.

Besides these issues, Antonio Costa, the Socialist prime minister who vowed in 2015 to overturn austerity, remains popular in Portugal. His party and its allies likely will win the coming European elections on May 26.

“Euroskepticism, which grew a lot during the crisis, it is not as important today. We do not expect a defeat as the Socialist Party is popular in Portugal,” Andre Freire, a political science professor at Lisbon University Institute, told VOA.

Portugal has 21 seats at the European Parliament.

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