As Portugal continues on anti-austerity path, will Spain be next?

David Raby asks if Portugal’s quiet shift away from austerity shows Europe the way to a new future

7th June 2016

Rebellion on the streets has fed led to political change in Portugal

Rebellion on the streets has led to political change in Portugal

Portugal has since December 2015 had an anti-austerity government which has taken a different course from the rigid austerity orthodoxy imposed by the “Eurogroup” and the European Central Bank (ECB) and followed also by our own Tory government.

Following elections last October the Portuguese Socialist Party, supported by the Left Bloc, the Communists and the Greens, was able to form a viable government committed to easing the burden on Portuguese working people and restoring some of the welfare benefits destroyed by previous right-wing administrations. Despite the financial dictatorship espoused by Brussels (and in its own way by Westminster), they have begun to show that there is an alternative.

Having ended wage and pension freezes for public sector workers, restored some tax concessions for low earners and halted some privatisations, the government was inevitably criticised by the austerity-mongers in Brussels. But since, unlike Greece, Portugal’s public debt is more or less under control, they were able to “get away with it”.

Now the government has approved a law reducing the normal working week in the public sector from 40 to 35 hours, a progressive measure which tends to share out available work among more employees and also implies the possibility of more paid overtime. The smaller Left parties wanted this extended to the private sector as well, but the Socialists did not feel able to go that far.

The government has also just proposed a measure (originating with the Left Bloc) to greatly extend the “social tariff” on energy bills, a subsidised rate for those on low incomes. It is estimated that about one million families will now benefit from a 33% reduction in energy bills, compared to only 110,000 families under the previous law.

None of this is revolutionary, but it shows that it is possible to end austerity and govern for the benefit of the poor and working people. It also shows that when some left-wing advocates of Brexit claim that “the EU cannot be reformed”, they are wrong.

As demonstrated in a recent article on this website by Hilary Wainwright and Mary Kaldor, the history of the EU is full of reforms and concessions won by popular struggle, by petitions and through the European Parliament. It is all a question of politics, and just as in national politics, where there is a political will, there is a way.

On June 26th – just three days after our referendum – Spain is holding its second general election in 6 months, and there is a real possibility that the anti-austerity Unidos Podemos (“United We Can”) alliance may win – in which case Portugal’s much bigger neighbour would join the fight for an alternative.

All the more reason for the UK to remain in the EU where we can help to strengthen the movement for progressive change!

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David Raby is a retired Professor in Iberian and Latin American History and Politics and author of “Fascism and Resistance in Portugal” (Manchester UP 1988) and “Democracy & Revolution: Latin America and socialism today” (Pluto 2006). He is also a Green Party City Councillor in Norwich and is a member of the Green Party’s International Committee. He can be reached at dlraby@liv.ac.uk and is on Twitter @DLRaby