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Portugal slows headlong rush for EC membership

The Portuguese government's bubbling optimism over European Community (EC) membership is turning lukewarm in the face of the Community's present internal difficulties.

When it was swept to power last December, the ruling Democratic Alliance declared that speeding up Portugal's EC negotiations was its "priority of priorities." But Portuguese officials have begun to admit publicly that Portugal's formal accession to the EC may be delayed beyond the scheduled date of Jan. 1, 1983.

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In a recent interview on Portuguese television, Portugal's Foreign Minister Diogo Freitas do Amaral backpedaled considerably. He said that the completion of negotiations by the beginning of 1983 was no longer "essential."

"too much importance has been attached to the calendar set for Portugal's accession to the EC," he commented.

Portuguese caution about the EC stems from French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's advice last June that present members of the Community must sort out their own disagreements about financing arrangements and the Common Agricultural Policy before new members could be admitted.

The President's statements shook the complacency of the Portuguese to a greater degree than anything since the 1974 revolution. It also made Portuguese Prime minister Francisco Sa Carneiro more determined than ever to complete his support-gathering tour of European members states. The tour had been interrupted May 18 -- when Mr. Sa Carneiro was involved in a London car accident on his way to talks with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Following the Giscard "shocker," the Portuguese government found itself in desperate need of reassurance. The threat of a French veto on Portugal's accession was a huge embarrassment coming less than four months away from the crucial Portuguese general election.

"Judging by the way they talked last December you would have thought the Portuguese government owned the EC. Now it has to tell its people that little Portugal does not run the show after all," commented a Western diplomat in Lisbon.

The Sa Carneiro tour took top Portuguese officials to leading Western capitals, including Paris. The prime minister emerged from talks with President Giscard on July 1, declaring that he had been "completely reassured" about France's attitude toward Portugal's membership in the EC. Within a month both West Germany and Britain had issued similar reassurances.

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The arguments of these three countries were that political reasons demanded Portugal's accession into the EC. Six years after a leftist military coup overturned nearly 50 years of dictatorship, Portuguese democracy is still fragile. It would be strengthened once Portugal enters the EC.

But whereas there was strong support for Portuguese membership of the EC in 1979, member states now are finding it increasingly difficult to be specific as to when exactly this should take place. The clashes that have occurred between EC countries over the past year are looked upon as the beginning of a long-drawn-out battle.

The government faces judgment in the October general election and clearly the latest backtracking threatens to have a negative impact on the Democratic Alliance's preferred image of itself as a coalition that "gets things done."

Conscious of this, the Portuguese government is treading carefully on the EC issue. In contrast to the angry and loud airs of confrontation emanating from Spain (another country on the EC waiting list), the Portuguese government has avoided criticizing France in public.

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