(I know, I know... this is a travel blog, but who cares?) :)
Today is (still) Europe Day. On this day, 63 years ago, Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister at the time made a declaration calling for the need to create a new form of organisation of States in Europe, some kind of a supranational community. That was the first step of many that led to the creation of what we know today as the European Union.
Over the years, I became interested in this so called process of european construction, so I guess today it's a good day to share some of my views about this overwhelming crisis that if affecting Portugal, Europe and the world itself.
About Portugal, there's one thing that became clear to me over the past months. Make no mistake: the middle class (where I belong) will be poorer and poorer (compared with northern european standards) in the next decade(s). People can scream, people can shout, people can complain as much as they want, but they (me included) need to accept that as an undeniable fact and prepare to see all their previous hopes and dreams be shattered into a million pieces. From those ruins, we'll need to build a new tomorrow, both as individuals and as a society. And there is nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. I'm actually preparing for that challenge.
But why or how did Portugal reach this point? Amongst all the white noise and demagogy I've been hearing in the last couple of years, a few days ago it all became crystal clear to me, after watching the explanations of a portuguese economist. In his words, Portugal lost his job in the world and got at the same time a credit card. That couldn't lead to anything good. I'll try to summarize his explanation:
Let's consider the post 2nd WW world as a huge company where each country performs a role, a task. For many years, our role in the european economy was to export simple industrial products, made with intensive labor and low wages (e.g. textile industry and simple machinery). Besides that, we had tourism (beaches and sun). When we joined the European Union, back in 1986, the big european economies such as Germany changed our industrial map, when their big multinationals installed many factories here, creating jobs and attracting investment. That modernized our small industry and everyone here knows the progress our society had during the 90's.
But then the XXI century came and it brought one thing called globalization which completely changed the way the world was spinning. In 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and it's cheap labor attracted all the big economies in the world. Shortly after, in 2004, many former soviet union countries joined the EU. Their cheaper but more skilled labor than our own (portuguese), shifted the attention of the big european economies, who placed their big factories and investment there. That's when Portugal got "unemployed" regarding its role in the world's economy. As a small country, we became useless and unattractive for the "big fish". We kept being a good destination for holidays, but that is not enough.
At the same time, we joined the EU's economic and monetary union which led to the creation of a single currency, the infamous EURO. At the time and during the years that led to the crisis, all countries profited from low interest rates. What does that meant for Portugal? Everyone (State, banks, companies, normal people) lost their minds and started spending money. Public and private debt exploded to unthinkable levels. That's the credit card part. As a country (and here I blame the political elites and the people) we had this ingenious (yet incredibly stupid) idea to live and be happy like the rich european countries but without having nothing to offer in return.
Sooner or later, someone would look at those "credit card" statements and stop financing this debauchery. In a nutshell, the subprime crisis imploded in USA in late 2007 and the european banks were extremely exposed to it and that huge hit affected the stability of the euro and the european countries high public debts became an easy target for the financial markets. While trying to keep their (some might say unexistent) role as a key player in the world's economy, side by side with USA and Asia, the EU, leaded by Germany, was forced to do everything to save the euro and started bailing out the southern economies, creating on the public opinion the idea that they are helping those countries (such as Portugal). This led and it's still leading to a huge division between countries, between their people. Populist and nationalist movements are rising all over Europe and we were never so close to a complete collapse of the so called european utopia. The truth is that Germany is not helping anyone, but themselves. We are not talking about little kids games here, we are talking about the big game. Southern economies are like infantry, the first barrier against the financial markets, while the big fish is preparing for the big battle in the backstage. They are assisting us while they need and as long as we comply with their rules. Ironically, this constitutes a paradox: while they are objectively not helping us, we can't survive without their so called help. Again, let me be clear: if we don't follow their rules, they close the money pipe and then we'll see what's real poverty, as the country will enter in bankruptcy with unimaginable consequences.
Welcome to today, this is our Europe as of 9th of May 2013!
And the following is what I think about this tiny beautiful country next to the Atlantic ocean, full of history and wonderful things.
I recall an expression used by a good friend of mine a couple of years ago, when the crisis imploded in Portugal: "this is a chance for a collective catharsis for of country, of our people"! At the time, I gave his words some thought and felt hopeful for a brighter future for us, for our people. Our society, my generation, we would learn with our mistakes and start working on a better future. Two years passed and I lost my hopes.
And I blame the middle class. The poor were always there and the rich will always be rich. The change will have to happen in the middle class, which represents most of the people in this country and was the most favoured class in the last 30 years. And within the middle class, I believe that it's my generation and the following ones that should lead this change, this evolution and build a brighter tomorrow.
But I don't see that willingness around me. I hear a lot of complaining, a lot of whining. I hear people talking about rights and expectations, that they "deserve" more. Deserve? WTF? We don't deserve anything. Ok, I concede that we are entitled to fundamental rights such as the right to life and all the basic things that luckily are granted in western world. We have all those charters and declarations giving us lots of rights and a few duties.
Besides that, we have to make our own luck, trace our own destiny. We have to fight hard and struggle. But that's the thing, our middle class thinks that they don't have to struggle. I have to say that I get more and more impatient when I hear people with 30 years old living with their parents when they could afford a rent and live alone or share a flat. I don't talk about people that are jobless or in some fucked up situation. I refer to people who prefer to spend their money in travels, expensive phones and clothes instead of spending it in rent, food and bills while leading a modest but independent life. I can't stand how people are affraid of losing their status quo in the society and keep living above their real possibilities. That's the same problem that led us here and people are not changing, that can't be good. I can't stand this bourgeois lifestyle around me.
I'm not even despising consumerism. All over the world, people want to have iPhones and fancy cars and all that material bullshit. I respect that, although it's not part of my nature. I'm criticizing the ones that want so badly to feel like they belong to a certain group of people that they lose the notion of reality. And there is only one reality for the next years here: we will have to readjust our lives to a sustainable level, whether that means riding a bike instead of driving a car, sharing a flat with three persons instead of living alone, spending our holidays in the beach right next to us instead of going abroad...etc... We have to live with what we earn, period.
My life has been incredible, but it was never easy, never had anything for granted and I'm still fighting everyday to survive, to stay solvent and be completely independent. I'm prepared and preparing for almost everything ahead of me.
So I urge you to look inside and ask yourself: Am I still living in some illusory bubble? Am I doing all I can for my country? Am I being the best I can be in everything I do, both professionally and personally? The future of our country lies in me, in you and in all of us.
I leave with a song from Joy Division that fits our situation as a continent.