The Portuguese people believe that their country’s fate is inextricably tied to that of the European Union. An ECFR survey carried out ahead of the Portuguese national election suggests that the Portuguese bounced back quickly from a surge in Euroscepticism linked to the strict conditions of Portugal’s 2011 bailout package. Currently Portugal values the economic benefits of EU membership primarily, but its people believe in the EU as more than just an economic project.
A small country is better off with a bigger union
The Portuguese are instinctive multilateralists, and hope that the bloc can help them tackle the challenges of globalisation: from climate change to cooperation on the impact of freedom of movement on Europe. In the world of Brexit, anti-EU parties, rising illiberalism and nationalism, Portugal’s political landscape – generally consistently European – remains unusually stable. As the country prepares for a national election on 6 October, the electoral debate is dominated by issues such as climate change, economic development, and political stability.
While the country has shown some signs of EU fatigue in recent years, they have not reacted as some other EU member states might have; they have largely not questioned whether the EU has overreached, whether it should be reconceptualised as a Europe of sovereign nations, and whether a nation-first approach is more appropriate in a highly competitive international environment.
To explain what makes Portugal so different and to draw lessons for the rest of the EU in how the country handles the debate on its future, ECFR commissioned YouGov to carry out a survey of 1,000 people in Portugal in the first week of September 2019. This report, by ECFR Senior Fellow Susi Dennison and IEP-UCP Professor Livia Franco, analyses the findings of this survey, and unpacks what the results imply about Portugal’s views on the EU and the world.
Main findings of the report:
- 53% of Portuguese were convinced that EU membership often protected Europeans against the excesses or failures of national governments.
- While Portuguese citizens’ support for the European project remained strong, they were not necessarily sure that it would survive. Only 35 percent of respondents thought it unlikely that the EU would fall apart in the next 10- 20 years. Given the strong sense of the EU’s importance to their economic future, this perhaps goes some way to explaining the stress, pessimism, and sadness in their feelings about the world.
- The Portuguese view the freedom to live and work in other countries as the second-biggest loss from the EU’s potential collapse. Portuguese aged 18-34 cited freedom of movement as the biggest loss from the EU’s potential collapse.
- The Portuguese are highly critical of unilateralism and non-cooperative behaviour: in ECFR’s survey, 48% of them believed that strengthening European unity was the most important factor in improving the EU’s position as a global actor.
- 30% of Portuguese respondents to ECFR’s survey believed that their country should respond to Brexit by strengthening its relationship with both the UK and the EU. Yet another 25% of them felt it should strengthen its ties with the EU alone, and just 7% with the UK alone. 74% of those who emphasised that Portugal should strengthen its relationship with the EU and the UK saw the bloc as providing protection from the failures of national governments.
- The Portuguese believe that, in its relationship with Africa, the EU should prioritise healthcare above all else, focusing on economic growth only after corruption and education.
- 70% of supporters of the Socialist Party thought that both the national and the European political systems worked fairly well.
- 50% of Bloco de Esquerda voters believed that both national and European systems worked, while only 20% thought that both were broken.
Feelings about life and the future:
- Portuguese who saw themselves as better off than their parents outnumbered those who saw themselves as worse off (45% compared to 28%). This contrasted with other EU countries, where 42% of people felt that they were worse off.
- The Portuguese have persistent anxiety about the future due to the country’s fragile economy. 58% of survey respondents in Portugal felt that the EU system worked somewhat well, while 44% believed that the national political system was broken. This seems to confirm that, while the EU’s reputation has made a swift comeback, there has been no such recovery at the national level.
Feelings about threats:
- The Portuguese view climate change as the second-biggest threat Europe faces (19% of them regard this as the biggest threat, just shy of the 20% who viewed the financial crisis in this way). According to the survey ECFR carried out following the last European Parliament election, only citizens of Germany and the UK paid this much attention to climate change.
- The Portuguese regard migration as the fourth-biggest threat the EU faces.
- While 41% of respondents were equally concerned about immigration and emigration, 30% were more worried about emigration and just 15% about immigration.
- 70% of respondents wanted their country to remain neutral in a conflict between the US and China, while just 14% preferred it to back the US.
Feelings about corruption:
- Although the Portuguese acknowledge that corruption is an important issue in various parts of Europe, only 41% of them see it as a major issue in central and eastern Europe while 64% view it as a significant problem for Portugal.
- Although the government has made a sustained effort to foster integrity and strengthen anti-corruption measures in the public and private sectors, the Portuguese believe that both the executive and the judiciary remain reluctant to fight high-level corruption. Indeed, 50% of all respondents to ECFR’s survey said that there were no political leaders they personally trusted.
As Portugal heads to the polls, it knows it needs the EU and has thus turned away from the message of anti-EU nationalist parties. Regardless of the election results, the next Portuguese government will continue to prioritise multilateralism. As Portugal primarily views EU politics through the lens of international cooperation, other member states can rely on it to be an active partner in strengthening European strategic autonomy in the coming years – which will likely be a key priority for the incoming high representative for foreign and security policy. Portugal will almost certainly help the union pursue this goal when it assumes the presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2021.
Above all, Portuguese voters want the new leaders of the EU’s institutions to prioritise European unity and cohesion in the coming years. As ECFR’s survey shows, this comes across in their attitudes towards foreign policy issues such as Portuguese ties with the EU after Brexit and the risks of the EU’s potential collapse.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think-tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research in pursuit of a coherent, effective, and values-based European foreign policy.
With a network of offices in seven European capitals, over 60 staff from more than 25 different countries and a team of associated researchers in the EU 28 member states, ECFR is uniquely placed to provide pan-European perspectives on the biggest strategic challenges and choices confronting Europeans today. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources. For more details, please visit: www.ecfr.eu.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This report, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.