Filipe Carreira da Silva and Mónica Brito Vieira
Boris Johnson is not a well-known figure in Portugal. But his eccentric hairstyle and well-rehearsed amiable buffoon attitude have been noticed ever since his election as mayor of London. This was funny to watch from afar in the Olympics, but uncomfortable to encounter face-to-face. The self-deprecating Portuguese are not a people given to flamboyance and excesses of theatricality. By the time Johnson visited Lisbon on October 2017 much had changed since his stint at the mayor’s office. To be more precise: Brexit had happened (well, not really, but…) and Johnson had become minister. And not just any minister, but minister at the ministry where his prodigious tactlessness mattered most: Foreign Affairs. Boris arrived in Lisbon as a miscast. But the show needed to go on. A small country, like Portugal, has little alternative but to play by the rules set by others.
As the British Foreign Secretary set his feet there, he was not merely representing the interests of his country in Brexit. Boris was Brexit impersonated. Spectacularly ill-prepared for the task before him, yet supremely confident in his ability to somehow save the day in the eleventh hour with a joke, the best this “force of nature” (as the Telegraph likes to portray him) was able to bring to the table was a modern take on the worn out Luso-British alliance. As with almost everything involving Johnson, it backfired. Johnson reminded the Portuguese of James Bond’s provenance (supposedly in nearby Estoril – but Boris being Boris, one would better check). The British nationalist hero must be Johnson’s literary avatar. But he is anything but insular: for every one of its missions, Bond depended on a very qualified international entourage.
Johnson’s Portuguese hosts smiled back politely. They tend to do this. We are accustomed to getting a living from being the good host. But the truth of the situation was apparent. Johnson’s Brexit is the playground of a privileged class enjoying the thrill of playing with fire in the knowledge that they are not going to be the ones getting burnt by it. Brexit was a bluff that went bad. It was followed by yet another bluff that went half-bad: Johnson’s. He did not quite get the party’s leadership, but he got to haunt the negotiation, or the lack thereof. Through the resentment-fuelled toxic campaign, he was the champion of mistruths. As inflation and the costs of living rise, and it becomes clear there is no sizeable industry to protect or money to be freed for the NHS, mistruths that became part of the political fabric are becoming unsustainable. But they will hurt nonetheless. And they will hurt especially those in the deprived areas of the UK (and there are many…) who found in Brexit the vehicle for a legitimate outcry.
What the Portuguese think of Brexit depends on where they are and on how directly Brexit is likely to impact their living. The dominant impression in Portugal is that the UK’s relationship with the EU was a marriage of convenience, whose end did not come as a surprise. To the Portuguese, the UK was never fully in the EU, and the EU never fully treated the UK as one of them. The UK was the perennial insider-outsider. There is also a general sense that having the UK in might be better than having it out. But this is primarily because its departure might weaken Europe. Concerns in Portugal are primarily economic, and they are acute: to recover from the worst economic downturn since the 1970s. The country counts on Europe for that. The main challenge is how to make the Portuguese economy more competitive so as to make the country’s enormous public debt sustainable. With a public debt at approximately 130% of the GDP Portugal ranks fourth among the countries with the highest public debt levels in the world. This makes it dependent on the European Central Bank’s purchase of Portuguese bonds as part of its quantitative easing programme. This means there is only one side to take on Brexit. But it does not mean this is a goodbye without a tearful farewell.
In Portugal Brexit followed the normal news cycle. At first, there was great interest: there were talk shows discussing the causes and likely effects of the referendum result, in the UK and across Europe. Fears of a populist contamination, eviscerating Europe from within, were at a peak, as least up to the French Presidential election. But this was not the only fear festering in the minds of the Portuguese. Another fear felt more tangible, more real. Portugal is a country of emigrants: 22% of its citizens live abroad. In the 1960s they fled to France. From 2008 onwards they headed to the UK. In 2013, at the peak of its emigration, more than 110,000 Portuguese were leaving the country every year. Today virtually everyone in Portugal will know of someone living and working in the UK. The future of the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese residents is not someone else’s business: it is pretty much everyone’s business.
But distance matters, and it can be created within even close personal relations by sheer exhaustion. As talks dragged on, interest subsided and the Portuguese turned their attention to issues closer to home: the government’s economic policy or indeed its inept handling of the worst natural disaster in the country’s recent history, the wildfires that have already claimed over one hundred lives. But there were those who could not turn their attention away. This is true especially of economic agents with an active interest in the UK. With a home market of just 10 million people, many of whom facing falling living standards, Portugal has no choice but to look for markets abroad. Britain is the fourth most important destination for Portuguese exports, representing about 7 percent of sales. The number might not seem that impressive but it is sufficient to put Portugal at the top of the list of EU countries with trade surpluses with the UK. Understandably the prospect of having their trade hit by customs barriers or new tariffs worries businesses.
It is however the Portuguese who live, study and work in the UK who are most at risk of being caught out by Brexit. Uncertainty about their ability to remain in the UK is seconded by fears of not being able to work there under fair conditions. A post-Brexit hostile atmosphere, including episodic acts of violence and shaming, does not help assuage anxieties. For the relatives of these immigrants back in Portugal, the prospect of having them return brings about a mixture of joy and preoccupation. During the crisis many amongst the country’s youth packed and left the country. Those leaving for the UK were amongst its most qualified. Four out of ten of the Portuguese in the British job market now have a degree. Less qualified workers too saw themselves forced to seek job opportunities abroad. They are now working, for instance, in farms and the hospitality business, and might not even qualify for visas under Brexit conditions. Their vulnerability to exploitation may be aggravated well before that. Brain drain and population shrinkage, because of lower birth rates, are problems affecting a country that loses its youth. For both reasons, many back home believe it would be good to have them back. But they would find it hard to find a job, let alone a job matching their skills, or indeed an employer acknowledging them.
But even if youth emigration is such a key structural feature of the Portuguese society, there are many Portuguese with no direct experience or relationship with the youth’s destination country. For them the UK is but a small island with bad weather, about which they could list a handful of cultural references, from the Beatles to David Bowie, from the royal family to the Premier League, José Mourinho figuring prominently in it. They will have no strong feelings regarding Brexit: it will be a foggy political fact, whose technical complexities elude them.
For the government, however, things are different. Brexit will profoundly and irrevocably change the power dynamics in the European Union. Berlin and Paris will be tempted by the prospect of implementing an ever-closer union, even at the cost of dividing it in two concentric circles. For a small and peripheral country like Portugal, the prospect of being excluded from a future inner core is sufficiently worrying for it not to be mentioned in public. This might explain why the only significant official position of the Portuguese authorities regarding Brexit has been about bringing home – to the country’s second city, Porto – the spoils of the day: the European Medicines Agency, currently based in London. There might have been a special relationship between the British and Porto, via port wine. But for all the smiles bestowed on Johnson, with Portugal’s resolve to accommodate one of EU’s most crucial agencies, the age of innocence is over.
Filipe Carreira da Silva is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (since 2005). He is also Fellow of Selwyn College (since 2014). In 2010, his book Mead and Modernity was awarded the American Sociological Association Distinguished Book Award (History of Sociology). His latest book is Sociology in Portugal. A Short History (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016). Mónica Brito Vieira is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of York. She held a Junior Research Fellowship at Murray Edwards College (2005-08), University of Cambridge, where she now holds a permanent Visiting Fellowship. Before moving to York, in 2012, she served as a Research Assistant Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-UL).
Image Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office