'Merkel Get Out!' Chancellor Faces Angry Protests in Portugal
Following her visit to Greece a few weeks ago, Angela Merkel made her first official visit crisis-plagued Portugal on Monday. With the trip, the German chancellor sought to bring a bit of hope to the struggling nation. But as in other Southern European countries, a weary public greeted her with angry protests.
It didn't take long after her plane landed in Lisbon for it to become clear just how poorly some in Portugal regard Angela Merkel. "Hitler go home," read one banner held up by a man standing on the sidewalk as the German chancellor's motorcade passed by. A few meters further, a person waved a black flag and two others stretched their arms out to give the Hitler salute.
It wouldn't be off the mark to suggest that the location of the day's most important meeting was a well-chosen one. Forte de São Julião da Barra, a fortress with massive walls and moats, located kilometers away from Portugal's capital city on a cliff with a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean, is virtually impregnable. It is the country's most important sea fortress and serves today as the headquarters of the Portuguese Defense Ministry. It is to this fortress that Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho invited the chancellor on Monday for her first official visit to the debt-plagued country at the southwestern edge of Europe.
Passos Coehlo's real office is located in central Lisbon, but Portuguese officials on Monday sought to emphasize the fact that space is cramped at Passos Coelho's office -- hence the decision to move the meeting to the fortress. But one can also assume that the prime minister also took pains not to expose his guest to too much direct aversion from his people.
He preferred on Monday to show how "pleased and happy" he was about the chancellor's visit. "Of course we don't blame our European partners for our situation," he said during a joint press conference after his meeting with Merkel. Passos Coehlo said the problems are attributable solely to the country's lack of competitiveness and instead praised the "constructive aid" Merkel had given. He also noted that the protests taking place surely didn't represent the sentiments of the majority of the people in Portugal.
But even the few, scattered groups the chancellor did encounter during a visit that lasted for only a few hours made clear to Merkel the kind of "hard times" the Portuguese are currently experiencing, she said. With her trip, she wanted to provide "a bit of hope," she said, praising the "courageous reforms" undertaken by the government in Lisbon and describing the path of fiscal consolidation the country has taken as "absolutely necessary." Passos Coelho concurred profusely, saying he was aware of the difficulties associated with austerity policies but they were the only way to guarantee sustainable economic growth in the future.
Merkel a 'Persona Non Grata'
Many people in the country view the situation differently. "Go To Hell Troika," for example, has been the motto of one Facebook group created by the left-wing opposition, unions and civic groups to protest Merkel's visit. And five days before her visit, more than a hundred intellectuals and artists signed an open letter posted on the Internet declaring Merkel to be a "persona non grata." As in Greece, where protesters also greeted the chancellor during her recent visit, Merkel is being viewed by a growing portion of the population in Portugal as the personification of austerity measures and the leader responsible for the painful cuts that they are being forced to accept in return for aid from their European partners.
In May 2011, the country became the recipient of a bailout package from the European Financial Stability Facility, the temporary euro rescue fund. At the time, the troika -- comprised of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- provided Portugal with a 78 billion emergency loan. The conditions for the aid have already been extended by a year and stipulate that Lisbon reduce deficit spending to 4.5 percent of gross domestic product by next year, with the country then adhering to the EU upper ceiling of 3 percent deficit spending by 2014. It also envisions Portugal being able to finance itself independently via the markets again by September 2013.
The Portuguese have long been considered model pupils when it comes to reforms, but many experts have come to believe that the country is still going to have to rely on its creditors for a longer period of time. Recently, they have registered signs of fatigue in Lisbon's reform efforts. That's little wonder given the deep recession that has caused the economy to contract by 3 percent this year and an unemployment rate that is at 16 percent and rising. Among the Portuguese under the age of 24, more than one-third are jobless.
Nevertheless, the center-right government in Portugal still wants to push through additional austerity measures. Next year's budget foresees savings of 5.3 billion, or around 5.5 percent of the country's GDP. They are expected to be raised through drastic tax increases, with the Portuguese media calculating that planned income tax hikes could be the equivalent of a month's wages for many people. Cuts are also planned in unemployment benefits and pensions, while massive savings are also planned in the government's education and healthcare expenditures.
General Strike Planned for Wednesday
But the Portuguese have grown weary of the increasing number of austerity measures being imposed upon them. Their outrage is mounting, shaking the nation's sense of social harmony, Portugal's ambassador in Berlin admitted before Merkel's visit. The opposition Socialist Party (PS) no longer wants to back the planned reforms, accusing the government of blindly bowing to Merkel's "savings mania." Even President Aníbal Cavaco Silva recently distanced himself from the government. Merkel also met with Silva for a short talk on Monday to ask him to support Passos Coelho on his difficult path.
And Passos Coelho left no doubt that he wants to continue on this path. The debates that focus only on the risks of these policies, rather than the opportunites, are "pathological," he said. Merkel, too, has appealed to the critics. "We believe in what we are doing," she said. "We're sticking together." When asked what she thought of the Portuguese in general, the chancellor even made a promise. She said she finds the country to be so beautiful that she definitely plans to take a vacation there at some point when she is no longer chancellor.
Shortly thereafter, the chancellor's entourage left the fortress, although it remained within a safe distance of the larger protests. In the historic Belem district, Merkel und Passos Coelho took part in a German-Portuguese business conference at a cultural center to explore investment opportunities between the two countries. A few protesters were also to be seen there, some of them chanting "Merkel get out!"
The chancellor isn't indifferent to such protests, which often include deeply personal attacks against her. But she bears the antipathy, as she has in Greece, with a mixture of stoicism and understanding. Merkel's hope is that that troika's crisis prescriptions will be the right medicine and put the economy back on track. Then, she calculates, the tone would quickly become more conciliatory again. At least that's the plan.
Until these successes arrive, however, the protests will continue. The opposition and a number of organizations in Portugal have planned a general strike along with Spain, Greece and Italy for Wednesday. And once again, the anger is likely to be directed mainly at Merkel.