Portugal has government of “many ‘tweets’ but few solutions”

August has barely begun but social and political ‘dis-ease’ in Portugal is becoming ever more apparent.

With the health service lurching from crisis to crisis; energy suppliers warning of rising costs and being ‘shouted down’ by the government; pilots taking to the streets in uniforms habitually associated with calm and control, and foreigners choosing to make their lives in Portugal finding themselves stripped of valid driving licences, nothing seems to be as it should.

Politicians are habitually ‘on holiday’ this month – but somehow it isn’t looking like many will be photographed sunning themselves on beaches anywhere: there are simply too many issues hovering.

This week, the noisiest buzz in the media is the overwhelming distrust bristling over the government’s much-trumpeted ‘Iberian gas brake’ mechanism.

Back in March it was presented as a way of ‘saving’ consumers in Portugal and Spain over a billion euros. Politicians discussed “the need to protect our citizens and industry… in case Europe is not up to the task”.

Europe duly sanctioned the plan, and then last week Nuno Ribeiro da Silva, president of Endesa Portugal, explained that it wasn’t quite as it had been cracked out to be…

Spanish consumers would indeed be benefiting from the ‘Iberian gas brake’ mechanism, he said, but not the Portuguese. The Portuguese were in line for stiff increases in monthly bills, starting this month.

Mr Ribeiro da Silva told Conversa Capital, put out by Antena 1 and Jornal de Negócios: “We are talking in the order of 40% or more – and it has nothing to do with electricity companies”, he said. It is all down to the small print of the ‘gas brake’ which has to see consumers ‘compensating’ suppliers for the limit on prices charged.

The results would be “a disagreeable surprise” for hundreds of thousands, he admitted.

But within hours his message, and his explanations, had been thoroughly trashed by energy secretary João Galamba, backed by the prime minister who actually issued an order to all State services with contracts with Endesa (and there are dozens of them) not to pay any bills unless they are ‘validated’ first by João Galamba.

The PM’s order referred to “speculative practices” and left open the possibility that ‘new suppliers’ will be found who “maintain adequate prices” if necessary.

It was (or certainly seemed to be) a knee-jerk reaction to Nuno Ribeiro da Silva’s bombshell, and in the eyes of the country’s main opposition party, it showed “an unacceptable attitude, with a hint of persecution and interference in market rules”.

The PSD is now calling on the market regulator ERSE to fully analyse the effect for consumers of the Iberian gas brake mechanism.

Said the party’s vice president Miguel Pinto Luz, it’s time everyone knows the truth. This is a government that is forever tweeting plans and perceived triumphs, but there seem to be very few real solutions coming forwards, he said.

As for the furious responses by energy secretary Galamba and the PM, it looks like they are “the only ones capable of guaranteeing the quality of public spending”, said Mr Pinto da Luz. Far from generating confidence, their reactions were “testament to the incompetence of public administration” – at a time when further testament truly is not needed…

Right on cue, all the other parties have thrown their feelings of disgust and distrust into the ring. CHEGA, for example, wants all parties involved in the spat to come to parliament – including ERSE – and explain the full fine print of the much-touted ‘gas brake mechanism’, to see once and for all what it all means.

The fact that Mr Galamba has already remarked that ‘people can always return to the regulated market’ (the market from which they all migrated in the first place) has not helped.

August not the time for accidents or becoming ill… or seeking any answers at all… 

But August was never going to be easy. The country heard from DGS director of health Graça Freitas as she presented the country’s ‘summer health plan’ in June that citizens should try not to get ill in August or have any kind of accident. Both would actually be “the worst thing that can happen”, she warned.

It is not however just in the area of health service response that the country is failing. Public services generally appear to be unravelling: notaries and registrars are ‘on strike’ for two days out of every five (and their hours are short as it is…); tax offices in many areas keep their doors shut, only accepting prior appointments; IMT outlets – certainly the one in Faro (see our letters page)- seem to have given up entirely, leaving dozens of foreigners who have complied with rules of residency effectively stripped of their driving licences.

As a number have already explained to us in desperate emails, the fact that the government ‘announced’ back in June that rules on exchanging driving licences were largely to be dropped hasn’t helped. The age of 60 is the cut-off point – and the majority of people affected by this particular glitch are retired pensioners.

Now, imagine a retired pensioner who plans a visit ‘back home’, but no longer has a driving licence with which to enjoy autonomous mobility. True, if they are lucky, they will have a piece of paper issued by IMT here, allowing them to drive in Portugal while they wait for their Portuguese licence. But that piece of paper isn’t valid in anywhere else in the world – and some people have been waiting months in this situation with no indication of when it will end.

Meanwhile, the government goes on ‘tweeting’: the PM’s latest introduces a graph, explaining “Facts are facts. Every day we are saving with the Iberian mechanism” (while we are still not sure that this is even true…); ministeries meantime advise citizens to turn off their taps and avoid any kind of behaviour that could spark a fire…

By Natasha Donn