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How Shorter Lunches Signal Portugal's New Status In Europe

The "poor man of Europe" has a wealth of things to say for itself.

Ten years after entering the European Union (EU), where it was at first treated more as a pupil than an equal, Portugal has begun to assert its interests more boldly within the 15-member trade bloc.

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The subtle shift began after the socialists took power nine months ago from a Social Democrat government that had steered the country out of its isolationist poverty.

Officials in Lisbon say the rest of Europe should expect more demands from a country once termed a "good pupil" by former EU chief Jacques Delors for its compliance with EU directives on managing its economy.

"Before we were only receiving funds. We were protected as a new member," Francisco Manuel Seixas da Costa, secretary of state for European affairs, says in an interview. "This has changed now. We have been there for 10 years so the [European] Commission treats us like other member countries.

"We need to be more assertive and frank in discussions now," he adds.

Portugal spent most of the past decade recovering from a long dictatorship, unstable governments, and the traumatic aftermath of colonial disengagement from Africa.

But changes over the past 10 years are palpable in a country once considered economically backward. The number of people receiving higher education has nearly tripled since 1990.

Freeways now link remote farming villages with modern cities. New prosperity can be seen in the automatic bank machines all over Lisbon, the capital. Supermarkets and shopping malls sell goods unavailable just a few years ago. And foreign investment has poured in while a once protected financial industry has been liberalized.

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Attitudes in what used to be a closed, insular society have begun to modernize, albeit slowly. The new thinking is on greater efficiency: many offices have shortened the formerly de rigeur two-hour lunch breaks, and a once-nightmarish bureaucracy has been somewhat streamlined.

Mr. Seixas da Costa says the progress would not have been possible without EU financial aid, which rose from a net $277 million in 1986 to $2.3 billion in 1994.

"The general balance is very positive if you take into account the situation 10 years ago," he says.

Inflation is down to 3.5 percent, GDP growth is expected to be 2.5 percent this year, and unemployment is about 7 percent.

But the key industries of agriculture, fishing, and textiles have been hit hard by the drive to be more competitive and to produce according to EU needs. Many farmers have given up the hoe to flock to cities, where crime and drug abuse have risen.

Portugal's problem centers on what will happen when the EU's current five-year "investment support agreement" is up for renewal in 1999. The expectation that the current 60 billion escudos of aid ($387 million) will decrease is perhaps one of the things spurring Portugal to be more assertive in protecting its turf.

Lisbon has taken a firm line against an EU proposal to cut its allotted quota of tomato production by 20 percent. It has also insisted on new fishing negotiations with Morocco, which threatens its own industry.

Portugal is also vocal about the proposed enlargement of the EU. The economic union's poorest country after Greece, Portugal fears competition from any new members for aid, as well as in the little industry it has.

Seixas da Costa says he is afraid enlargement will dilute the Union, adding, "We fear we will be creating a less integral EU. The disintegration of the Union is one risk."

Diplomats say that Portugal's vocal concerns about the question of enlargement are convenient for bigger EU members, which have the same worries but don't want openly to anger prospective Eastern European members.

The diplomats say they are also impressed with Portugal's mature and balanced approach, defending its interests in the Commission without alienating itself.

"Instead of playing good pupil it's learning to play teacher," says one diplomat, noting that Portugal had willingly shared its experience with potential EU members despite its reservations.

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