AMBASSADOR José Vieira Branco hides none of his passion for the European Union and says he is among the strongest supporters of the union in Portugal. He believes that Europe needs a common approach towards immigration and that carefully designed public-private partnership (PPP) projects can be an essential tool to help keep countries’ economies afloat. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Branco about Portugal’s renewable energy efforts, the challenges the country’s education system faces and also strains in the labour market.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Portugal, which lacks its own sources of fossil fuels, has ambitious plans to develop so-called clean-tech or renewable energy sources. For example your country is building the largest solar farm in the world. Could you describe Portugal’s ambitions in the area of renewable energy? Do you have expertise that might eventually help Slovakia?
José Vieira Branco (JVB): We are heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels and we felt we needed to do something about it. We set a target of covering 31 percent of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. For that we need to proceed quickly and effectively in all areas of renewable energy resources. In the area of hydro-electric power we decided to build some eight new dams over the next six to seven years. We are trying to use the public-private partnership (PPP) model for these constructions.
Wind power was something new in Portugal a couple of years ago, but we have invested heavily in this area. In 2007 and 2008 we were ranked as the 10th-largest onshore wind power users in Europe. In terms of wind power use per population and area, we are now ranked fourth in the world. We have Europe’s largest onshore wind farm in the northern part of Portugal. What is also important is that the majority of the hardware used for wind energy is produced in Portugal and we are also investing in innovation and research in this area.
Portugal has a lot of sun, which predisposes us to exploit photovoltaic or solar energy. We already have the world’s largest photovoltaic power station working in the south of Portugal, where we have a lot of sun. It started as a municipal company but then attracted a strategic partner, to whom shares in the new company were sold. At the same time all the photovoltaic panels are produced in Portugal.
Then we have a fourth source, which is in fact my favourite: wave power. I have read that Portugal has the first commercial wave farm in the world. It is located five kilometres off-shore. It is of course a complicated process because even the hardware is not well-tested yet worldwide. We want to progress in this area as a Portuguese national capacity.
TSS: Last year the OECD suggested that Portugal needed further reforms to make its labour market more flexible and enhance the adaptability of the labour force. What are the major challenges that Portugal’s labour market faces today? How has your government been trying to tackle these challenges?
JVB: For us the problem has always been how to balance flexibility and protection for workers. Every government tries to reach a new agreement with the trade unions, which are pretty strong in Portugal. We also have a well-anchored tripartite system.
We believe that it is vital to involve respected union representatives in managing the country’s economy, and the importance of tripartite discussion increases in the times of crisis. Successive governments have tried to discuss with the unions the prospect of making the country’s labour market more flexible. We have had problems with short-term and self-employed contracts for example. We also are gradually adopting measures to make the market more flexible but it is an open-ended process.
TSS: One of the challenges that Slovakia’s education sector faces is that the country’s schools have been somewhat disconnected from the needs of businesses and that closer ties need to be developed between the business sector and academia. What is the situation in Portugal?
JVB: One of the heavy legacies that we inherited from the previous regime [Portugal’s pre-1974 right-wing dictatorship] was a lack of education, and the results delivered by the national education system. In 1974, 18 percent of our population was illiterate and only 10 percent of the population had completed high school education or been to university. We need to adapt and adjust our education system. Over the past 20 years we have built a full education system in Portugal, which has its flaws and fragilities.
After the regime changed we were forced to improvise and build an education system very fast so that each municipality has a school. This provided a sort of quantitative answer to the problem, but sometimes leaves the question of quality unanswered.
The most serious problem is the high drop-out rate from schools and we have been addressing this issue through our new opportunity programme, which provide new learning opportunities for young people who drop out of schools. Once they finish this programme they have a chance to access better qualified jobs.
In the past we had only three universities: today we have many, some of which are even located outside the main urban centres. So now we are restarting the reforms again. This will for the first time provide the best-performing universities with more funds, more research and development opportunities and a more flexible management and governance model, with the opportunity to invite private sponsors to discuss and participate in strategic decisions by the university, such as what education to offer, how to build a merit-based system, etc.
As for secondary schools, we have been reforming the evaluation system for students but also for the schools and the teachers. Since we have had a highly centralised system of schools, we went for a more decentralised model by moving some of the powers from the Ministry of Education to the schools.
At the primary level we have enlarged the system, lengthened teaching hours and changed the curricula. Over the past three years we have made English compulsory from the first grade, for example. We also have a programme called “one laptop for every child” which is making 500,000 laptops available to school kids. The hardware is a Portuguese design, with specific e-learning software. When my three grandchildren came to visit me during Christmas, two of them brought their laptops. It is a success.
TSS: Slovakia has embarked on its first PPP project to build a cross-country highway. Portugal has also used the PPP model to build road infrastructure. How successful was the project and what is Portugal’s experience with PPP projects?
JVB: We have about 12 years of experience with PPP models. What we have learned over that time is that government must refine its tools to administer and evaluate these projects so that they are able to pick the party which is able to manage them most efficiently. We opted for PPP projects in the transportation and construction sectors and now we are moving to the area of health care, with hospitals. The idea is to introduce the PPP system into 10 hospitals. The results have been good. Since we needed to improve the road infrastructure, PPP projects helped quite a lot and now we have a PPP covering road toll collection.
However, we felt there was a need to develop a dedicated unit to manage PPP projects within the public administration, and this is now a reality. We created a team which deals solely with PPP projects and concentrates managerial capacities and the knowledge gained. We are very much in favour of PPPs since they are sometimes the only way of starting huge projects without immediately deepening the budget deficit of the state and, as a member of the euro area, we have to be very watchful of our deficit.
Besides, in times of economic crisis, I do not see any other way to keep some of the large projects running. The Portuguese state is trying to help businesses to stay afloat, provide employment benefits and use all possible tools to ease the impacts of the crisis. But it all puts pressure on the state budget and since companies are closing down revenues are dropping as well. So how do you keep the economy running? Most probably through PPP projects.
TSS: Last year, there was an intense debate in Portugal over making the Portuguese language more uniform by introducing changes to the spelling of hundreds of words to make them conform to the Brazilian way of spelling. What was the point of the debate? How has this need emerged?
JVB: We have always had two schools of thought in Portugal regarding Portuguese. The first school says that Portuguese is something that you cannot put into a code since we have several Portuguese: we have the Portuguese from Portugal, the Portuguese from Angola, from Mozambique, from Guinea and the Portuguese from Brazil. Thus these people are fundamentally against a multilateral agreement on Portuguese. The other school says that universality is a great thing, but that we need to have some rules and the only way is to adapt to the way the majority uses the language. In the end, this is what has happened to most languages and this is the way they evolved. We made a multilateral agreement between all the countries that use Portuguese. Now children are starting to use this form in schools and are learning to write according to the new rules. Of course, you cannot expect the older generation to change their writing and speaking habits.
TSS: Immigration has been an increasing challenge for many European countries. What is Portugal’s take on the issue and how has Portugal been handling it? Your country adopted an immigration law a couple of years ago. How effective has the legislation been?
JVB: Historically our country has produced emigrants, but over the past couple of years we have turned into a country which receives immigrants. In the first years, we had a lot of immigrants who did not have legal status and reactions in society were diverse. Then we initiated a debate which basically suggested: we have fought against discrimination suffered by Portuguese emigrants but are we now discriminating against others? That was the beginning of progress. We produced a law and legalised about 50,000–60,000 immigrants. I think it was a great decision. When we made the move some of the immigrants had already been integrated. When they came with families they were able to send their children to schools, because in Portugal no school can refuse to take a child just because their father does not have legal status. So the children have been learning Portuguese. It often happens that immigrant children get the best results in the Portuguese schools. Portugal also argues that the EU needs to have a common policy on migration.
I personally am very proud of a particular thing we did. We found out that there were several immigrants who were doctors by profession but were working in the construction industry. A non-governmental organisation found them and managed to help them to re-qualify: today they work as physicians in Portugal. This attention to detail makes me proud. It shows that we have a flexible system, which allows these adjustments to reality.
TSS: What are the most important challenges that the European Union (EU) faces today? What EU-related issues are most pressing for Portugal?
JVB: I am among the strongest supporters of the European Union in Portugal. In general, Portugal has been very pro-European. It happened precisely because we felt the difference and have profited quite a lot from our membership in the European Union and the euro. A country like Portugal can fully use its capacity only in a larger market such as the European Union.
The biggest challenge is of course to have a coordinated response to the economic crisis without endangering some of the freedoms we have: the freedom of movement, freedom of exchange of goods, etc. We need to be very firm on fighting any tendency towards protectionism. We will develop only if we go further on competition. There is no possibility of individual development inside Europe.
TSS: Has the tourism potential between Slovakia and Portugal been fully explored? Is there something that Slovakia could offer to an average Portuguese tourist? Are the Portuguese a nation that likes to travel?
JVB: The Portuguese do not know enough about Slovakia and vice versa. Slovaks do travel to Portugal but one of our tasks is to develop mutual Slovak-Portuguese tourist links between the countries. It is not only a question of promoting the country because you need to involve travel agencies in the process, and air companies, and businesses. Only after that might we manage to generate an interest among people in travelling to Slovakia. We definitely need to make a strong move in this area.
Portugal: general facts
Political system: parliamentary republican democracy
Total area: 92,117.5 square kilometres
Population: 10.6 million
Official language: Portuguese
Key exports: machinery and mechanical appliances, vehicles and associated transport equip ment, clothing and footwear, chemicals, wood, cork, pulp and paper
Numbers of Portuguese citizens living in Slovakia: 100-150
Sources: A Portrait of Portugal; the Portuguese Embassy in Bratislava