Saviour in distress or warning example – the role of neighbours in the Corona crisis

By Reinhard Naumann | 09.04.2020


The socialist government of Portugal worked against the spread of the coronavirus early on. A national state of emergency was imposed on 19 March 2020. It severely restricted the right to freedom of movement, which, in addition to the closure of schools, also forced the suspension of all cultural, leisure and sports facilities as well as restaurants. Since then, this restriction on freedom of movement had been tightened again to counter the spread of the virus during Easter celebrations.

The government’s handling of migrants and refugees has attracted international attention. On 27 March, the government issued a decree to legalise the status of all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have previously applied for a residence permit or asylum prior to the state of emergency. Evidence of having applied is recognised by the authorities as a valid residence permit. It grants the use of the national health service and a claim to benefits from the state social insurance. The applicants are also entitled to enter into employment contracts, rent apartments, open bank accounts and arrange contracts for basic services such as water and electricity. This measure is in line with the immigration and integration policy of the Socialist Party, which has been in force since the 1990s and is largely supported by the liberal-conservative president.

The decision to impose a state of emergency was made by consensus across party lines by the president, the socialist government and the parliament. The majority of social partners also expressed their support for the move in a joint statement. According to surveys, the vast majority of the population is in favour of both the state of emergency and the concrete measures against the virus. The growth rate of the number of newly infected people has steadily decreased and has been below 10 per cent since the beginning of April. The total number of infected is 16,934; the number of fatalities is 535 (as of 13 April 2020). Apparently, Portugal has managed to avert a disaster like the one that struck Spain and Italy.

Now, the question of European solidarity is on the agenda. The state budget, which has been stabilised by undergoing major sacrifices in the past 10 years, can provide the necessary funds to cope with the consequences of the economic paralysis – bankruptcy, unemployment and massive short-time work – for only a limited period of time.

At the video conference of the European Council on 26 March, Prime Minister António Costa was among those who called for a strong EU solidarity-based response to the corona crisis. In the Portuguese parliament a few days before the conference, Costa outlined his position as follows: the EU must counteract the ‘asymmetrical effects’ of the crisis caused by the pandemic. The EU’s €37bn euro package, the suspension of the 3 per cent deficit limit and the ECB’s intervention against the risk of a new sovereign debt crisis are not sufficient. Money is urgently needed to cover the exploding costs of the pandemic. ‘This is a common problem for the entire EU, and therefore we need a common response from the entire EU.’ Specifically, Costa called for a ‘large investment programme at the European level’ and the creation of so-called ‘coronabonds’, as a commitment to help countries, against a backdrop of increasing public debt, from being isolated due to the distrust of the markets.

After the video conference, António Costa was disappointed with the result. When asked about Dutch minister of finance Wobke Hoekstra’s having requested an investigation as to why some countries do not have sufficient financial capacity to cope with the economic impact of the crisis, António Costa reacted in an unusually harsh tone: ‘These statements are abhorrent […] If an EU country believes the problem can be solved by letting the virus run free in other countries, it has not understood what the EU is. This recurring pettiness undermines the EU. If the Union wants to survive, it must not allow statements like these to be made.’

António Costa will certainly maintain the country’s traditionally constructive role in the EU. However, it becomes clear that Portugal, the ‘European poster boy’, is also calling for solidarity from the wealthier member states, measures not dependent on harsh conditions imposed on the intervention countries by the Troika in the euro crisis.

Reinhard Naumann, FES Portugal

This text is part of an article published on April 14th on the website of International Politics and Society.