As Portugal eyes Brazil's wealth, will the colonial winds reverse?

As Portugal eyes Brazil's wealth, will the colonial winds reverse?

Young Portuguese congregate in a park in Lisbon. Photo: Erik Mandell for MercyCorps
Young Portuguese congregate in a park in Lisbon. Photo: Erik Mandell for MercyCorps

Amid its ongoing financial crisis, Portugal’s prime minister has a surprising message for his country’s struggling residents: leave.

It’s just one example of Portugal looking to emerging markets for relief as power dynamics of international economic relationships change.

Conservative Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho suggested that moving to Portuguese-speaking countries and former colonies such as Brazil and Angola could be an alternative for young Portuguese hit hard by unemployment, according to IPS news. Coelho’s suggestion specifically focused on teachers, saying that other places could provide better job markets for educators. But the Prime Minister’s suggestion is being met with criticism, including from the governments of his imagined receiving countries for Portuguese emigrants.

Brazil and Angola both shot down this suggestion quickly, stating that they had no need for teachers from Portugal, IPS reports. Ana Maria Gomes, a leader of Portugal’s opposition Socialist Party, also criticized Coelho, saying "that is the last thing a prime minister should say... because no matter how complicated things are, we can and must pull out of this.”

Yet given recent economic trends, it makes sense that a struggling European country like Portugal might consider unorthodox solutions.

Brazil, the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking country, recently surpassed Great Britain to become the world’s sixth largest economy, reports The Guardian. Douglas McWilliams, chief executive of the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) described Brazil’s economic rise as part of a larger trend. He told The Guardian that "Brazil has beaten the European countries at soccer for a long time, but beating them at economics is a new phenomenon. Our world economic league table shows how the economic map is changing, with Asian countries and commodity-producing economies climbing up the league while we in Europe fall back."

This global shift of economic power, evident in Brazil’s rapid growth, is seen elsewhere as well. The emerging power of the so-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) has been widely recognized for a while now, with trade in manufactured and resource-based commodities fueling the rapid growth. And the global financial and Euro-zone crises have accelerated the divide in growth between emerging economies and traditional economic powers.

Including the BRIC countries, 19 of the 30 predicted largest economies by 2050 are currently emerging markets, according to HSBC. And Project Syndicate reports that changing patterns of innovation and research and development will further fuel this shift, pointing out that in 2000 so-called developed countries only accounted for 76 percent of global R&D, down from 95 percent in 1990.

News of the rise of emerging economies isn’t new, but these figures pose a problem for struggling countries like Portugal. And the trend of turning to emerging countries for financial assistance signals a rebalancing of power likely to last.

Coehlo’s suggestion for emigration coincides with news that the Chinese state-owned Three Gorges Corporation bought 21 percent of Portugal’s largest power producer from the debt-burdened government, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The largest-ever Chinese investment in Europe further illustrates Portugal’s precarious situation. As another Chinese state-owned enterprise, China State Grid Corporation, bids on purchasing Lisbon’s national power grid operator, Portugal shows its willingness to sell assets to emerging economies to stay afloat.

“The European economy needs blood, but not in the form of a transfusion,” said Wang Yiming, a senior Chinese economic policymaker. “We need to create new blood by promoting investment.” In other words, China doesn't want to simply loan cash to the West. But it’s willing to invest in concrete assets.

Wang’s statement demonstrates China’s view of itself as an economic savior. If troubled countries have assets to sell, emerging economies are willing and able to buy.

So China is buying shares of Portugal’s utilities, and Brazil doesn’t want its unemployed emigrants. The Portuguese example shows that emerging economies now have more choices when it comes to global economic relationships.

Five hundred years after Portuguese landed in Brazil, have the colonial winds reversed? Maybe not entirely, but emerging economies now have a comparatively better hand to play. And for countries like Portugal, the game of economic power is no longer stacked so strongly in their favor.

Erik Mandell is a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in public administration and global leadership at Portland State. Read his other contributions to Global Envision.

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