Contrasting fortunes: Portugal and Poland

  • 1 May 2014

Matthew Price: For a country that almost fell over the precipice when the euro crisis hit, Portugal doesn't half look wonderful.

The red roofs of the capital Lisbon cap off buildings painted subtle shades of blue, green and pink.

But the old-world charm of this former colonial power can't mask the very real social problems that have affected almost everyone here.

Chris Morris: Warsaw's looking pretty good in the spring sunshine too - 10 years to the day since Poland joined the European Union.

Much of the city centre was rebuilt in its old image after World War Two.

And in the past decade there's been a new construction boom, as EU funds have flooded in.

'Mission accomplished'

MP: EU money has poured into Portugal too, of course.

Billions have been lent to the country to help it escape a fierce debt crisis. The big picture is that after years of cuts, the government balance sheet is looking better and the economy is showing signs of improvement.

Portugal is expected to formally exit its bailout programme this month - something those EU leaders who advocated the bailout-austerity approach are sure to use in their election campaigns to claim "mission accomplished".

CM: Poland has problems of its own to deal with but, from a much lower starting point, its economy has been growing: nearly 50% bigger over the past decade.

So this feels like a place on the up. European aid has been used to build roads, and modernise agriculture and other parts of the economy.

And Poland, of course, isn't in the euro. It's committed to join under the terms of its accession treaty, but politicians are in no hurry. While membership of the EU remains very popular, support for joining the single currency has plummeted.

Poles are waiting to see if the eurozone has really ironed out its problems. So far, so cautious.

'Main competitors'

MP: Part of Poland's reluctance of course, is because it has seen how weaker economies like Portugal's can destabilise the whole single currency.

Broadly speaking, Portugal's mainstream (and mostly pro-bailout) parties will end up with the bulk of the vote here, but there is a fledgling anti-euro movement. The radical left parties are actively campaigning for a referendum on leaving the single currency.

Most of Portugal's anger against the austerity programme has been directed against its government.

But Antonio Costa Pinto, at the University of Lisbon, says about 28% of the population here express some anti-EU sentiment and that's partly thanks to countries like Poland.

"The Central and Eastern European enlargement of the European Union (in 2004) was the beginning of the end of euro-optimism in Portuguese society."

Central and Eastern European countries had "a much better trained labour force and very competitive economies, after the transition from Socialism to a market economy, (so they) became the main competitors of Portugal".

Gap narrows

CM: But from Poland's perspective, it's still got a lot of catching up to do.

Average salaries here have doubled since Poland joined the EU, but they're still well behind most countries in Western Europe.

That's why so many Poles have upped and left - more than two million of them.

The government argues that people will start to return as the gap narrows, but others are more sceptical.

Many people describe the brain drain as "the most negative aspect of EU membership".

Still, there's no doubt that New Europe feels like a more optimistic place than Old Europe.

Strange, then, that turnout in the European elections is expected to be so low - possibly under 25%.

Poles are practical people, and they seem rather fonder of the EU's money than they are of its institutions.

Image caption Portugal has been rocked by a string of protests against government austerity measures
Image caption Warsaw has seen a construction boom, as EU funds have poured in